Connections and Disconnections in the Digital Age

As we lead multitasking lives and interact constantly in cyberspace, our friendships are encountering new stresses—even as they're enduringly important.
January 31, 2007

One day early in the semester, around three o'clock in the morning, Mike Schneider, a sophomore, found himself in desperate straits. He was violently ill, his stomach rebelling against him in constant spasms, apparently from eating some bad fish the previous day. He didn't feel at all like moving. But six of his fellow students, gathered in his dorm room, prevailed on Schneider to allow them to seek medical help. "During one of the busiest weeks for all of my friends," he recalls, "they took time to drive me to the hospital and sit with me for hours, pick me up, and then continue to check on me and bring me anything I needed until I was completely healed. Three friends who couldn't go to the hospital wrote me a poem and sent me a Get Well Soon! balloon."

College friendships have endured long beyond student days for Betsy Alden '64, who is service-learning coordinator with Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics and a visiting lecturer in public-policy studies. She and eight former dorm-mates came to Duke from a variety of backgrounds—different parts of the country, large and small high schools. But, she recalls, "We had similar values. Most of us were activists of one kind or another." They protested segregation at Durham's Carolina Theater. Later most became professors or teachers; one works with pregnant teens and another teaches yoga at a Virginia ashram.

Illustration by David Cutler

Freshman year was a particularly formative period, Alden says. And for this network of friends, it remains a reference point. Back when it was the Woman's College, East Campus was in many ways a closed community. "There were no phone calls after 10:30. There was one television in the dorm parlor." So, late at night, when the doors were locked, she and her friends carved out social space inside the dorm. Over time, that social space enlarged.

"There isn't anyone in this group who wouldn't share anything with the others," she says. "There is no secret, no family tragedy, no celebration that we could not talk about." Together they've been through births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. And, Alden says, they've taught each other. "These are the people who challenge me to be the best I can be—to call me on it when I am not doing something that they believe I ought to be doing, who really care enough to be truthful all the way."

These are familiar stories of friendship—a theme that, as it happens, was familiar and even fundamental back in the time of Plato, around 380 B.C.E., as illustrated in his dialogue Lysis, or Friendship. Plato's protagonists devise and reject alternative models of friendship, including friendship between those who think alike and those who think in opposite terms. They seem to conclude only that friendship is linked with beauty, and "beauty is certainly a soft, smooth, slippery thing, and therefore of a nature that easily slips in and permeates our souls." More than 2,000 years later, the idea of friendship is more confusing than ever. In a world defined by multitasking lives and constant connections to cyberspace, friendship is encountering new stresses—even as it's enduringly important.

Some new research suggests reasons for worrying that friendship, however amorphously understood, isn't what it used to be. The June issue of the American Sociological Review carried a study, "Social Isolation in America," that found that social networks are breaking down. The study spurred a flurry of media accounts. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman called it "one of those blockbuster studies that make us look at ourselves" and concluded that "Americans can take poor, paradoxical comfort from the fact that if you are feeling isolated, you are not alone."

"Social Isolation in America" interpreted data from the 2004 General Social Survey, which asked a representative sample of some 1,500 Americans questions about their close ties with other people. The study asked the same questions and relied on the same face-to-face interviewing techniques used in a 1985 survey. It showed more Americans treating "kin," spouses and parents mostly, as their major or only confidants. In 1985, four of five respondents had at least one close friend who was not a relative. By 2004, that figure was fewer than three in five.

The social scientists behind the new research are Lynn Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of sociology at Duke; Miller McPherson, research professor of sociology at Duke and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona; and Matthew E. Brashears, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Arizona. Smith-Lovin says she and her colleagues were surprised by what they discovered. The basic patterns of life usually don't change that quickly, she says.

They heard from social scientists from around the world; colleagues in the Netherlands and Hungary, for example, had found similar patterns in their own data. With all the publicity, "We got e-mail from people who thanked us for doing the research," Smith-Lovin says. "They were happy to hear that they weren't the only ones without a web of social connections."

If individual isolation is increasing and social networks are fracturing, that may be in part because we have less time to nurture them. "We know that American families have adults who are spending many more hours in the labor force," Smith-Lovin says. "Women have moved from part-time to full-time work, and some people are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. And we know that the average tenure at a job has gone down dramatically, meaning that fewer people mention coworkers as close confidants."

During the last few decades, tasks and roles that used to be handled by family members or neighbors have been handed off to professional helpers, Smith-Lovin says. We have daycare providers, dog walkers for hire, even therapists to whom we, in essence, subcontract our needs for support. Smith-Lovin says that she and McPherson have experiences that are true to their findings: The two are closely connected as spouses and confidants. All the same, she has fewer close confidants than she did twenty years ago. "That's partially because of geographic moves that we have made and partially because life is just very, very busy."

Social fragmentation is not merely a modern concern. De Tocqueville, the early illuminator of American democracy, speculated that "as the circle of public society is extended" in America, "the sphere of public intercourse will be contracted; far from supposing that the members of modern society will ultimately live in common, I am afraid they will end by forming only small coteries." The so-called Middletown studies of the 1920s, based in Muncie, Indiana, speculated that radio was making people more isolated and lonelier.

"The phenomenon has been going on since we started moving out of hunting-and-gathering societies," says McPherson. "Back when we were in communities of twenty to fifty or sixty people, everybody knew everybody else and discussed important matters with everybody else on a daily basis. And so their core networks were really large. We've pretty much been on a decline ever since."

For Aristotle and other ancient thinkers, friendship was a civic glue: Friends would live together and nurture the same interests. It was friendship, then, that would hold together the city-state. If the city-state was virtuous, that reflected the tendency of friends to support one another in striving for virtuous lives. Of course, a tight circle of friends could also form a cabal that would upset the city-state—a view given a certain validity centuries later by E.M. Forster, who, in his essay "Two Cheers for Democracy," declared, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

In cheerleading for good health practices, medical researchers have long drawn links between social isolation and individual well-being, including proclivities to suicide. Now neuroscientists are finding that friends can change the way we think, on the deepest level. The brain is remarkable in adapting to its environment, says Kevin Pelphrey, assistant professor of psychological and brain science at Duke. "It's an incredibly plastic, adaptive, proactive type of organ."

Illustration by David Cutler

Illustration by David Cutler

Part of that plasticity relates to responding to those around us. "We all have the experience of being comforted by someone else's smile. And once you start to smile, you start to feel better. You will have associated reduced stress and reduced heart rate. We've evolved some really sophisticated brain systems for picking up on other people's emotions."

Pelphrey mentions studies documenting that, neurologically, feelings arising from observed events are communicable. That observation-feeling nexus activates a particular area of the brain. And when another person observes the result—for example, a facial expression suggesting pleasure or pain—the same area of the brain is activated in the observer. So when we watch someone, say, pick up an object on a table, the same part of our brain will fire up as that of the person performing the action. In some neurological sense, then, we are mirroring the thought patterns of those in our company.

Over time, Pelphrey says, "there is a kind of melding" among individuals in a tight network, "and you become more and more alike." We all know that confidants can finish each others' sentences; in conversation, they imitate each others' mannerisms on a subconscious level. "Neuroscientists are just starting to understand how you put yourself in someone else's shoes."

If we're walking alone more than we're putting ourselves in others' shoes, that hurts society overall, says Harvard public-policy professor Robert Putnam, who calls the new Duke-based study convincing—particularly, he notes, because the study's authors were initially skeptical of his findings. His popular book, Bowling Alone, documented a decline in informal social activities like dinner parties and, of course, bowling leagues. In the book, he argues that the fabric of American communities has frayed badly. The new study, he says, has implications for individuals; for example, social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking. It has larger implications as well. "Schools don't work as well where parents and community members aren't as involved in community life. The crime rate is higher in communities where people are more socially isolated. The economy doesn't work as well, because there is less trust, and so productivity growth is low. The political culture doesn't work as well. Bureaucracies don't work as well."

One thing that is working well—if relentlessness is an indicator of working well—is communication by e-mail. But ease of communication doesn't constitute depth of friendship, according to Putnam. "If you get focused on the contrast between purely virtual and purely face-to-face connections, you miss what I think is the most interesting thing, which is what I call 'alloys.' These are networks that are partly virtual and partly real. E-mail is a perfect example. Very few people engage in e-mail with total strangers; the huge majority of e-mail is with people who we actually also know offline."

Facebook.com, a popular social-networking site, was invented by the roommate of one of Putnam's former students. With more than 12 million registered users, Facebook began as a "social utility" for college students. Now it's made up of multiple networks—high schools, companies, and regions among them—each of which is independent and closed off to non-affiliated users. Putnam has had a profile on the site since its beginnings. "As it has become detached from real places—that is, as it has become no longer campus-based and therefore more anonymous in a way—I have become more skeptical about whether it is serving the purpose that it used to serve," he says.

"Now I get requests every day to be someone's friend. And it's crazy, because these aren't my friends; it's a complete abuse of the term 'friend,' a complete abuse to think that somebody who was assigned my book in some freshman course thinks it would be neat to say, 'I'm a friend of Bob Putnam.' What is the real meaning of that? Will they bring me chicken soup if I get sick?"

They may hold little promise for delivering chicken soup, but relationships across cyberspace have redefined the meaning of friendship, according to Nan Lin, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke. Cyberspace has "enlarged our sense of community to an extent that's unprecedented," he says. When blogs and online networks blur the lines between private and public information, it may not seem so important to have a small network of close confidants. At the same time, if friendships are defined in terms of the hundreds of people tied together in an online network, it's impossible to talk about intimate matters with all of them.

Friendships, Lin says, never develop merely as expressions of admiration or affection; they are also instrumental or purposeful. "In the past, we've tended to argue that friendship is important, that it promotes our sense of stability and our feelings of belongingness," Lin says. "What's happened is that we see people connecting with others we would consider familiar strangers; we're willing to share and interact with people about whom we have very little knowledge." Membership in an online community can be an avenue for receiving support, exerting influence, or inspiring individual activities toward a larger goal—all benefits of friendship.

But that doesn't mean cyberspace is the best space for friendship. Even in an era of online connectivity, "We want instantaneous feedback, one-on-one and face-to-face, not just through text messages," Lin says. "We want to see faces and gestures, to hear the tone of someone's voice. It's comforting to have that."

A Chronicle columnist who has written about the Facebook phenomenon, senior James Zou, refers to real-life interactions as "friendship capital." He says, "The more special the shared experience is, the more capital you get. Obviously the capital diminishes through time unless there is a new experience between the two of you. And I think the capital diminishes fast if you have just these mundane, once-a-week, instant-messenger interactions or Facebook interactions. When you're sharing a space with someone, you're replenishing your stock of friendship capital."

"Some of my close friends—my actual, physical friends on campus—have massive social networks on places like Facebook," Zou says. "Maybe 400, 500 friends." To what end, then, do students keep adding virtual friends? Social status is one reason, Zou says. "I mean, it looks nice that you have a thousand friends, whereas someone else has 200 friends. There's definitely a kind of competitive urge to have as many friends as possible, especially when it's so easy to make friends online, as opposed to making friends in real life."

One avid communicator who is less enthusiastic about constant connectivity is Sam Wells, dean of Duke Chapel. "The increasing number of ways that we communicate with one another probably means that we communicate less rather than more," he says. In his new book God's Companions, he refers to friendship as steeped in "the simple sharing of life"—the sharing that sustains religious belief. Friendship "offers a bridge between the somewhat lonely pursuit of a personal vocation and the somewhat self-denying participation in a community's common life," he writes. "In short, a friendship may offer a more intimate, focused, rewarding experience of what pursuit of a personal vocation or a participation in community may offer in a more challenging or less intense way."

"I see friendship as something where I say to you, 'I am going to be changed by knowing you,' " says Wells. Friendship has been a frequent theme in his sermons and his writing. "One of the early theologians of the church says, 'The glory of God is a human being fully alive.' That means to be fully alive isn't just to stand independently on your own two feet and not need anybody else. It's to be involved in life-giving relationships with all different kinds of people."

A friend is there in part "to keep you true to your vocation," Wells says. "I remember one very frustrating point in my life when I was quite miserable doing the job that I was doing. It was an ordained role, and I felt trapped. And one friend of mine just said, 'Where's your faith?' That was a real experience of friendship for me. It was a real jolt. I was just moaning, really, and he was saying, 'But what about the whole frame of reference that this conversation is a part of?' It was very challenging of him to say that. Most people were just saying, 'Okay, Sam, I hope you feel better tomorrow.' "

Wells says that students, reflecting as they do a fast-paced communications culture, may harbor a cheapened concept of friendship—reducing it to calling someone on a cell phone to ask, "Hey, what're you doing?" He says, "If I were to coin a phrase that summed up many students' approach to friendship, it would be, 'Might catch you later.' Most cell-phone conversations end with those words. That is, 'I'm not committing my evening to you; I might get a better offer. But if I don't get a better offer, I may be back in touch, because you may be part of my evening's entertainment.' Everything becomes provisional."

"We have this phrase, 'keeping in touch,'" Wells adds. "When we say 'keeping in touch,' we mean cell phones, possibly even a letter or an e-mail, none of which actually involves touching anybody. One of the reasons I talk about sharing meals with people as being so important is that in sharing meals, you do touch one another, or at least you touch the table together. The committed physicality of staying in the same place with somebody else for an hour it takes to eat the meal, rather than eating on the run and talking to someone on the cell phone at the same time, creates a different kind of relationship."

Illustration by David Cutler

Illustration by David Cutler

That forging of close relationships has long been a theme of literature—and a sustainer of literary careers. Milton's Lycidas is a lyrical lament to the memory of "a learned Friend" from university days at Cambridge, "unfortunately drown'd" when his ship sank off the coast of Wales in 1637. Milton is a standard part of the teaching repertoire for author Reynolds Price '55, James B. Duke Professor of English. "I've had a need for various kinds of friends throughout my literary career, which really dates back to my senior year in college," he says. "One of the real needs that a literary artist has is some sort of supportive network. It doesn't have to be a network—it can be one person, or it can be two people. The worst single thing about being a writer, except for the possibility that your work never gets published, or that it doesn't get published in the way that you want it to, is the loneliness.

"Beyond the very successful writers that I've taught, like Anne Tyler ['61] and Jo Humphreys ['67, Hon. '94], I've probably taught between ten and twenty other people who were very, very talented when it came to the writing of literary narrative. And these people would leave college and go off to either work on their own or do an M.F.A. But basically, sooner or later, they quit. And the ultimate reason they quit is that they couldn't take the loneliness of the job."

Price's first major literary friendship was with Eudora Welty, twenty-four years his senior, who came to Duke in his last semester as an undergraduate. Welty had been invited to campus by legendary creative-writing teacher William Blackburn; Price arranged to meet her late-night train at the Durham station and drive her to her downtown hotel. Welty read Price's short story, which was inspired by his experience as a boy at an Episcopal camp in the mountains of North Carolina; he had started writing it as a freshman and polished it for Blackburn's class. She called it "thoroughly professional," Price recalls—high praise from someone he had long considered a "sterling writer."

Welty then offered to send it to her literary agent, who eventually became Price's agent as well. That supportive gesture from Welty, he says, was "the opening trigger of our friendship," which endured until her death in 2001.

Price also had a friendship with British poet and essayist Stephen Spender—a creative relationship cemented by the publication of a Price short story in Encounter, a London-based magazine of culture and politics, in the spring of 1958. Spender was the magazine's co-editor. Before that, Price says, he had never been published in a magazine grander than The Archive, Duke's student-produced literary magazine.

"A lot of those friends who support me in my writing are other writers; I would say the majority of them are other writers. They know what the situation is, how much loneliness is involved," he says. They know the rules of the literary-friendship game: "Don't start criticizing too soon in the process. Wait till he's finished with the chapter, because if you start now, you might freeze him up completely, and then he won't be able to proceed."

For Price, friends have been vital in awarding him—as he put it in the title of one of his books—a whole new life. Without his friends, he might not have gotten through the period from 1984 through 1987, when he was "shut up in this house theoretically dying of spinal cancer," he says. "Those saintly souls—I don't mean 'saintly' in any religious sense, but people who are enormously unselfish and generous hearted—gave me the kind of attention that got me through it. Knowing that I could pick up the phone and call people at any hour of the day or night—and sometimes I did call people at three o'clock in the morning—was indispensable. I really think that I well might have died without it. It was a form of nutrition; it was just like getting the right amount of calcium or nitrogen in my diet."

If it's tougher and tougher to sustain a steady diet of confidants, organized social networks—the new bowling leagues—can help address the need. One example is the New York-based Transition Network. Its first executive is Betsy Werley '76, formerly a corporate lawyer and project manager for JPMorgan Chase. The thinking behind the network is that unlike any previous generation, today's "boomer" women are actively reinventing their careers, their relationships, and their lives. Among other things, the organization tries to forge a community of peers offering camaraderie and support.

"One of the things that I observe is that when women come to the organization and walk into a room full of other women their own age, there's a tremendous excitement, sense of relief, and bonding that starts very quickly," Werley says. "I think most women are open to building new relationships. They've had flexible personalities for family and work and other responsibilities. So in building friendships, they are flexible about letting new people into their lives." That's a carryover, she says, from women entering the workforce and realizing that "we had better support each other" in order to advance professionally.

"We put a great emphasis on women talking to other women, sharing what's going on in their lives, and accepting other people's thoughts on what they might do about it," says Werley. "I think smart people are looking to develop new friendships and to enrich their lives in that way."

But for a lot of smart people, that's not coming easily. As the recent Duke study puts it, "The American population has lost discussion partners from both kin and outside the family. The largest losses, however, have come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood. The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family," meaning that more and more social interactions are centering narrowly on spouses, partners, and parents.

And beyond those ever-tightening networks, people are trying to forge ties in ways that may be rewarding in just the most superficial sense—not just through cyber-networks like Facebook but also through virtual landscapes like Second Life. Second Life is a "metaverse" or metaphysical universe, with a population, at last count, of more than 1.3 million. According to Second Life's statement of purpose, "From the moment you enter the World you'll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences, and opportunity." You may purchase "a perfect parcel of land," even a private island, and sign on to groups ranging from neighborhood associations to fans of science-fiction movies. You, of course, will be in the form of an avatar, or digital alter-ego. If you choose, you can walk underwater or fly around.

Just an hour or so after joining, "you'll notice that several residents approach you and introduce themselves," the website promises. "Within this vibrant society of people, it's easy to find people with similar interests.... Once you meet people you like, you find it's easy to communicate and stay in touch."

In the context of this universe, communicating and staying in touch have decidedly nontraditional meanings. You can link with your online associates to hang out at a nightclub, take in a fashion show, attend an art opening, or play games. It could be the start of a virtual friendship. The gift of virtual chicken soup delivered by a friendly avatar, though, won't go down like the real thing.