Sociologist Robert Nisbet once said that the quest for community cannot be suppressed. It is one of the most powerful needs of human nature. Through community, a clear sense of purpose and belonging is established. People feel they belong to institutions that help put them in order.
Many think social media can supply part of this much-needed sense of community. They point out how social media allows more frequent contact with family and friends. By this logic the more one engages in social media, the better it would seem to be. However, scholars are finding quite the contrary. The more time people spend on social media, the lonelier they become.
People need direct human contact. The device-mediated experience does not provide that warm human touch. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that increased usage of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest is causing more people to feel isolated and excluded. Their study affirms that more than two hours of daily social media exposure doubles the possibility of a person experiencing loneliness.
A Poignant Example
However, statistics and studies are rarely enough to convince people just how harmful these media are. Sometimes it takes a shocking story to bring home just how terrible the problem of loneliness is.
No more poignant example can be that of Chuck McCarthy in Los Angeles. He walks people for a living.
Walks people? Yes, what begin as a joke for extra money suddenly gained traction. McCarthy found a business in which he will walk lonely people for a fee.
He charges $7 a mile to walk with someone around the streets near his home. He is required to walk, talk and listen to customers. McCarthy has received hundreds of emails from the lonely and the curious for his unusual services. They come not just from Los Angeles and America, but all over the world.
Reasons to Walk
There are many reasons why people seek him out. Many don’t like walking alone or want to be seen friendless in the streets. Others are simply so occupied with their devices that they have no time to develop relationships.
A good number are just plain lonely. His conversations with patrons are not necessarily profound; it is enough that it be human.
Curiously, McCarthy found that the people he walks are not necessarily without friends. Many do have good friends. However, he finds that hectic schedules make it difficult for them to coordinate their leisure time with that of their friends. Thus, they experience times of loneliness that McCarthy helps resolve with his people walking.
Apparently, there are plenty of lonely people out there. McCarthy has received so many requests that he has recruited at least five other walkers to serve areas of Los Angeles farther from his home. He has a Facebook page and has branded a “people walker” t-shirt.
More financially-minded people are advising him on how he might roll out his business model, scale up and even establish franchises or Uber-like apps. He has also gained a certain notoriety from interviews with big media reporters that are intrigued and amused by the concept.
But it is hardly amusing. As bizarre as people walking might sound, it underscores a very real problem with grave consequences. It is a painfully sad commentary on the state of the nation.
A Failure to Fill Needs
It represents a failure of technology to fulfill the social needs of individuals scattered in the cities without social networks. As much as people might try, the extended use of social media cannot serve as a substitute for the quest for community that is such a powerful human need.
When people try to use social media in this way, it leads to an unrealistic portrayal of reality that causes depression. People sense the deception of posting idealized images of what they would like people to believe them to be. They suffer the desolation of viewing radiant pictures of others who seem much more successful than themselves.
Nothing can replace the ties of family, community and faith that naturally fill those powerful social needs and keep loneliness and depression at bay. Until these institutions are restored, schemes like people walking will find a market and individuals will continue to pay the terrible price of loneliness.