This reflection at Jim Groom’s blog (bavatuesdays) about ‘intimate alienation’ — which is defined as
“when you are doing something alone and disconnected from others but simultaneously you are in a place that is ‘shared’ by others”
— sparked my interest in terms of “a sense of place,” especially as it explores the “real world” and “online” as places where we build relationships. The “place that is ‘shared’ by others” that he refers to could be the mall, school or college, a public library, a coffee shop, or it could be an online place, such as Facebook or an online group discussion, or simply a private house where we’re surrounded by friends and family.
In part, Groom says:
“This idea of alienation might be understood as increasingly more relevant during our moment based on the growing number of people who seem cut-off from the ‘real world’ given the massive amounts of time spent physically alone in public while communing through a computer. … [I]ntimate relationships like family, friends, and one’s love life … are all increasingly mediated by devices, i.e. a computer, the internet, mobile phones, applications, websites, social networks, etc., and what we have emerging is a kind of invisible, multi-layered constellation of things that bring people into real and intimate relationships ….
“This is where this idea of ‘intimate alienation’ seems to capture the real difficulty of our moment, because we are sharing our alienation, we have congregated around that fact in mass numbers.”
In the one-thing-leads-to-another way of the Internet, I originally found Groom’s alienation essay linked in a post by Barbara Ganley reflecting on her recent experience presenting at a social media conference. In it, Ganley says
“I struggled to express how feeling more ‘real’ in either off or online space wasn’t the point, but that in the spaces between, the spaces where, off-kilter, we can, as one person said, be conscious of what we’re doing in both, there we can weave together the best of both as we try to work towards better worlds. (See? Still struggling for clear expression.)”
After reading Jim Groom’s post and the conversation that follows it in the comments, Ganley writes this:
“Precisely because life offline is often ‘mediated bullshit’ [as quoted in Groom’s post], shouldn’t we work against that? Isn’t that what we mean by working towards better worlds? Are we giving up on our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our towns? Do we continue the flight from the broken down physical world — this time, not for the suburbs, but for the cyburbs where we find and build community in our own image, where it is easier, and more natural, often, to have much deeper conversations than when we meet in the grocery store, in the coffeeshop, on the playing field, in the office. … I am concerned that we won’t wade right into those physical communities, bringing with us the conversations and innovations from our online interactions to make better worlds in our towns and cities.” [italics and bolding mine]
I don’t know if it’s my age (early 50s) or where I live that most offers me a different experience from what Ganley and Groom are talking about, but my experience is that though I spend a chunk of time online most days, and I like it and feel a sense of community there often, I also spend a chunk of time most days in the real-world community, sitting in the local coffee shop reading the paper, socialising with friends over food and in gardens, taking long walks with other people, participating in bookgroup discussions, in the library, at the farm stand and grocery store, at friends’ houses, etc., meeting people (and dogs!) I would not meet online, and having interactions that are satisfying to me. I don’t think the conversations I have in those places are less important than the ones I have online, even if they are sometimes perfunctory, because they give me a strong sense of connection to the place where I live, to the world. So does being online. Really, any regular connection (daily is best, weekly will do), if it’s mostly positive, gives me a stronger sense of belonging to the place where those relationships are built.
When Groom talks about people congregating around the fact of our shared alienation, particularly via the online world, I wonder if alienation in the post-modern world is really of a different nature or depth than in the modern world, or Medieval times, or ancient times. It seems a human trait to feel excluded and un-belonged, to compare oneself with others and to imagine one sees a vast gulf between the two. We seem to both desire and fear being misunderstood. We fear it because if we’re not understood, then we feel we can’t be loved, and if we are loved, then we feel we’re loved for the wrong reasons; we desire it because if we’re understood, then we feel we aren’t exceptional, we’re just like everyone else.
Even in a culture where kinship is the ordering force, like the time of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible, or where feudalism ruled, as in the Middle Ages, I can imagine that many people felt they didn’t belong, were misunderstood, weren’t able to fit in well; but in those places and times, (a) there was very little opportunity to find and band with others who felt the same way, and (b) the social mores of the times strongly oppressed a perception of difference within peer groups and strongly discouraged comparisons with those outside peer groups, and (c) the social structure strongly supported ‘fitting in’. Those who really didn’t were probably marginalised geographically — outskirts of town (e.g., ‘pagans’), insane asylum, hermits — and in other socially meaningful ways.
Now, with individualism and the autonomy of the human so sacred, so foundational to our culture here in the U.S., a heightened sense of (and acceptance of ) alienation seems almost inevitable, and perhaps laudable.
Even in modern/post-modern life, pre-Internet (think 1960s), there was plenty of alienation to go around. The Beatles sang about “all the lonely people” in Eleanor Rigby (1974). David Riesman et al. wrote about it, particularly in terms of what he saw as America’s transitioning to an “outer-directed” society, in the best-seller The Lonely Crowd in 1950 (and in a 1969 edition, he clarified that our increased outer-directedness means “a greater resonance with others, a heightened self-consciousness about relations to people, and a widening of the circle of people with whom one wants to feel in touch”).
We don’t need an online world to make us feel lonely in a crowd. But maybe it helps. (Pacific Standard’s “The Lonely Crowd of Social Media” by Paul Hiebert, Oct 2013, wonders about social media’s intersection with the Lonely Crowd, asking “How does one exercise autonomy in a social media-saturated climate? Or is social media the most obvious and easy claim to autonomy we’ve ever had?”)
Groom’s point about our interactions being increasingly mediated by devices seems irrefutable. The telephone has been with us in the U.S. for 100 years, more or less, but the portability and ubiquity of devices for interactive communication — smartphones, texting, email, social media, Google groups, and various other internet platforms — has certainly proliferated in the last decade or two.
I like to imagine what Mayberry, North Carolina (as depicted on The Andy Griffith Show) would have been like with Andy (and his girlfriends Helen and Ellie), Barney (and girlfriend Thelma Lou), Opie, and Aunt Bea tweeting, talking on cell phones all day long, Skyping, gathered around a YouTube or Facebook video. Would Floyd the barber have been an even more effective town gossip if he’d had a smartphone and a Facebook account, or his own blog, or would he have been cut out of the loop because his customers would have sat silently in his barber chairs, texting their other friends?
How would Mayberry be a different place in the Internet age? In “The Andy Griffith Show: Mayberry as Working-Class Utopia,” Derek Alderman et al. comment that Mayberry is presented as a place where “social cooperation,egalitarianism, and good will win out over conﬂict, elitism, and self-interest. Community members know and help each other, regardless of social position, personal failing, or eccentricity.” Would community members know each other as well and be as accepting of those who are more obviously flawed or eccentric (oft-drunk Otis, hillbilly Ernest T. Bass, reactive deputy Barney) if they could connect with other pharmacists, school teachers, town leaders across the country or the world? Would there be as much fishing, dancing, ball playing, and coffee klatching if they had access to the virtual world of the Internet? Would perhaps Aunt Bea and Clara associate more with younger women in town if they had a town Facebook page, an online craft group to augment their in-person meetings, a peri-menopause group?
How are the places we live, and the relationships we have — with all beings — changed by our connection to the virtual world? Do you feel that you’re often “doing something alone and disconnected from others” in a shared place, and if so, does it feel alienating and isolating, or does it feel like shared activity that actually connects you in a satisfying way to others? Do you feel that in the “cyburbs” you have deeper conversations than when meeting someone “in the grocery store, in the coffeeshop, on the playing field, in the office,” and if so, does it give you a sense of belonging to a community?
The gist of the above essay was originally published by me in 2009 and has been heavily edited for this posting.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.