New York may be among the least lonely places on earth

by Sandy Ikeda

Or so reports an article in the December 1st, 2008 New York Magazine (with the headline, “The Loneliness Myth”) called “Alone together” that my wife, Jenny (aka JW in previous hat-tips), just showed me.  In Manhattan, half of all apartments have only one occupant, 57% of whom are female.  In Brooklyn (29.5%) and Queens (26.1%) the percentages are considerably lower.

Yet the picture of cities—and New York in particular—that has been emerging from the work of social scientists is that the people living in them are actually less lonely. Rather than driving people apart, large population centers pull them together, and as a rule tend to possess greater community virtues than smaller ones. This, even though cities are consistently, overwhelmingly, places where people are more likely to live on their own.

There’s much here about how loneliness may be an evolved biological alarm system for highly socialized, highly interdependent Homo sapiens and (a theme close to my heart) how trust is prevalent in large cities.  It also cites criticisms of Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” thesis – that Americans have since WWII become less civically engaged – which say that he ignored internet groups and other new forms of social capital.  And I just like to read passages like “Cities, in other words, are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves.”

But I was especially interested in how the author, Jennifer Senior, references the findings of social-network theory to explain the paradox that people in New York are at the same time more independent yet more interconnected (and thus less lonesome) than most other places in the United States.  In particular, she cites the work of Mark Granovetter to explain the importance of “weak ties” – connections between relative strangers – to the huddled yet relatively happy masses of New Yorkers.

I do think, however, she goes a little too far when she says:

I’d argue that New York and the Internet are about the same, in the way that a large bookstore feels like it offers just as many possibilities as—maybe slightly less inventory, but more opportunities to stumble on things you might not have otherwise. Whichever the case, what the Internet and New York have in common is that each environment facilitates interaction between individuals like no other, and both would be positively useless—would literally lose their raison d’être—if solitary individuals didn’t furiously interact in each. They show us, in trillions of invisible ways every day, that people are essentially nothing without one another.

So, really, they’re not the same at all, are they?  And she actually explains why:  face-to-face contact, and the kind of serendipity that it can give rise to, can’t be mimicked, at least not yet on the internet (with email and Facebook et al.).

The possibility for accidental contact and informal conversation are what Jane Jacobs called the “small change” from which social capital (i.e., norms of reciprocity and networks of trust) is built.  Not that you can’t form weak social ties with strangers spontaneously on the internet, but for many reasons the visual and tactile impressions we get face-to-face don’t translate electronically.  Perhaps continuing advances in three-dimensional, real time, long-distance communication might and probably will substitute at certain margins for face-to-face contact.  At the moment, however, I can’t see how it can ever be replaced to any important degree, whether we’re talking about making money or having fun.  If it were…now THAT would be a lonely world, indeed!

7 thoughts on “New York may be among the least lonely places on earth

  1. I wonder if this is all assumes a liberal society. She mentions how single people are less lonely around other single people. If we were more homogenous, we wouldn’t know what we were missing.

  2. How surprising is this? In a small community you have less options about the things to do and the company you keep. Sometimes you want to be some place like Cheers (where everybody knows your name), but oftentimes you do not, especially if you have eccentric ideas that tend to make for unpopularity in many circles.

  3. Dain, one can argue that the formation (and erosion) of weak ties is most prevalent in liberal or open societies, where Putnam’s “bridging social capital” flourishes; whereas in closed societies (eg, some religious sects and North Korea) strong ties and “bonding social capital” predominate.

    Rafe, I think that’s why there are disproportionately more strange people in a big city (ie, a city of one million has more than twice as many of what any given person would regard as weirdos as a city of .5 million). A great city is a place where there is a high diversity of BOTH human capital and tastes.

  4. A psychologist would say that your are confusing loneliness with solitude.

    Rainer Maria Rilke – who, throughout his existence, used to alternate between solitary retreats (usually in the countryside) and living close to groups of acquaintances in a big city – once wrote that Paris is the only place where one can be lonely (or was it unhappy?) with elegance and grace.

    Maybe that’s all there is to it : loneliness in big cities simply has more…style.

  5. Yes, but that’s why I think it’s very difficult to know the answer to this kind of questions. Being with other people all day long doesn’t exclude loneliness, from a psychological point of view.

  6. Being a native New Yorker I agree with this article. I never felt as lonely in NY as I did in other places. There’s an attitude of we are all in this together that most other places lack.
    NY is not perfect, but it does have this unique quality.

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