The significance of others

Times Staff Writer

EVERY now and then, a study comes along that declares our modern life terminally fractured, inspiring weeks, sometimes years, of despairing headlines and intellectual navel-gazing. This year, it's the so-called friendship study, which announced that nearly one in four Americans has no confidants -- no spouse, no one -- nearly triple the number in 1985.

The findings have resonated high and low: grave warnings from world-weary columnists, a joke in a Jay Leno monologue. Story after story has heralded the study as revealing "a nation of isolation" and "casualties of the Internet age." That's because it certainly feels true. Sure, we work too much and commute too far to build anything more than a broad network of acquaintances. We hunker down within our immediate families.

But step back a little and another picture emerges. What about the mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary? The explosion of online networking, for example, MySpace.com being among the most notable, or our addiction to e-mail.... If we're all so isolated, as Leno pointed out, "who the hell is everyone talking to on their cellphones?"

Then there's the study itself and the news media's hasty interpretations. Of course, when it comes to academic research, few would accuse reporters of overly careful analysis, particularly when a "finding" such as this one promises such tantalizing, blockbuster bad news. Who could forget the June 1986 Newsweek article -- only recently retracted -- about the bogus notion that single women over 40 were more likely to get killed by terrorists than married? That story was embroidered into the culture. (The most recent findings, it turns out, show that women over 40 have more than a 40% chance of marrying.)

Or the study in May in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. That one showed that middle-aged Americans are more likely to go to the doctor than their English counterparts -- but many in the media looked at the study and concluded that Americans are sicker.

Academia's latest media stars are the friendship study's three co-authors, sociologists from Duke University and the University of Arizona, who are keeping tally of their press (400 mentions and counting), spending their days fielding interview requests, including those of three documentarians, magazines from Forbes to Elle and a gaggle of radio shows.

In some reports, the study's co-author and spokeswoman, Lynn Smith-Lovin, seemed to get a little carried away, using images of Hurricane Katrina victims stranded on rooftops to illustrate her findings. "It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them," she told Reuters. "It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?' "

Still, if reporters had just read the study closely, the stories would have been more nuanced, even more interesting.

For one thing, the friendship study isn't, as sociologists and demographers like to point out, even about friendship. It's about confidants, people you discuss personal matters with, who are just as likely to be your bank teller as your best friend.

But the whole notion of candor these days exists independent of friendship, as the culture of Internet exhibitionism seeps into -- and reshapes -- the "real" world. Blabbing into our cellphones, posting our personal stories on message boards and blogs, and wading through celebrity-tabloid minutiae, we've lost all sense of what's public and what's private. We spill and spill and spill on reality shows, on YouTube.com, on niche online groups. It's a wonder we have anything left to say, let alone need more of an audience.

Questionnaire questions

MANY sociologists consider the Smith-Lovin team's data solid because it's based on the General Social Survey, a questionnaire that has been widely used every year since 1972 to measure a variety of social, cultural and political shifts.

Though one experienced social networks expert -- who feared professional backlash if named -- questioned whether the findings are a better reflection of the changing work ethic of interviewers from 1985 to 2004, the period the study compares, rather than our nation's purportedly growing isolation.

That's because the GSS requires the interviewer to "probe" if a subject lists fewer than five confidants. Probing leads to more questions; when a respondent lists no confidants, the interviewer can skip about a dozen questions. (Though the study's authors said they were concerned about that possibility, they also state that the "probe pattern" in the 1985 and 2004 surveys was "very similar.")

The interviews, during summer and early fall 2004, included as many as 148 questions, asked over 90 minutes. Respondents were interviewed in person, often in their homes, and selected from a random sampling of regions of the country, in urban and rural areas. The authors -- Smith-Lovin, Miller McPherson and Matthew E. Brashears -- are still skeptical of their findings and say so in their conclusion, even after months spent searching for what they assumed was a mistake in their methodology. They didn't find an error, but they did include several caveats to their conclusion.

"Possibly, we will discover that it is not so much a matter of increasing isolation but a shift in the form and type of connection," they write.

Could it also be that the interviewer-respondent connection is very different from it was 20 years ago?

The authors also acknowledge that people's reports of their actions aren't "perfect reflections" of them. And it's possible, they write, that their key question to the 1,467 respondents -- "Looking back over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" -- may have been misinterpreted to exclude newer forms of communication like e-mail.That wouldn't be surprising considering the 19-year span between GSS studies on the topic of social isolation, said Tom Smith, director of the survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

"The issue comes here not with reliability of the data source, in a general sense, but complexities in measuring these kinds of intimate relationships and whether people may or may not be using the same standard they used 20 years ago," he said.

Subjects may not have qualified their e-mail or cellphone chat as "discussion," the researchers write. And, they write: "What Americans considered important might well have shifted over the past two decades, perhaps as a result of major events (the attacks of 9/11 and the wars that followed)."

"One of things we read out of our data is that people may have fewer really close ties," said Smith-Lovin. "That doesn't mean they're isolated, but they have more weak ties.... We're kind of circulating through interests, groups and relationships at a faster rate, and we may not stay at any one long enough to develop that close tie."

Remarkably, in all this coverage, what might be considered a huge upside was often portrayed as a negative -- that marriages are more intimate than ever, with spouses relying more on each other for emotional support. The study also found that women are achieving equality with men in the number of social ties outside the family. There's also evidence that more people now have a confidant of another race. Still, it's the portrait of new American "isolate" that made the headlines.

For her part, Smith-Lovin said she's actually "heartened by the depth of some coverage and the fact that many of the reporters have actually read the research before talking with me." If the media missed anything, she said, it was that impoverished minorities -- the neediest group -- are the most likely to lack confidants. "My thought," she wrote in an e-mail, "is that the main audience of print media, radio and television advertisers is the middle- and upper middle-class ... so the inequality part of the story is not a natural focus, even though it's important at a societal level."

Life in the fast lane

IN 1995, social scientist Robert Putnam earned his own stardom by pointing out that our once-vibrant civic life was dying, a trend he termed "bowling alone," the title of his 2000 bestseller. Though his finding was criticized -- and contradicted in a 1996 Los Angeles Times article that showed Southern California's bowling lanes were in fact thriving -- Putnam still asserts on his website bowlingalone.com that "joining one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year." Today, he acknowledges that as one type of social connection diminishes, another takes its place.

"My view has always been not that this was some great plague we would never survive, but one type of connection was becoming outdated and that we needed to invent new ways of connecting," he said. "I've always thought part of the solution would come from electronically based connections."

There was a similar shift at the beginning of the 20th century "when we moved from farms to cities," Putnam said.. "In that sense, you might say, 'Well, let's stop hyperventilating about this. It will fix itself....' This is a fine line," he said. "On the one hand, it's not like from here on out it's all downhill. It also would not be right to say, 'Don't worry about this, it'll fix itself.' "

But there's also the possibility that maybe a lot of us are just happier alone. Even harder to imagine, we could be so sated by communication elsewhere in our lives that we've just run out of fodder for heart-to-heart talks.

Columbia University sociologist Peter Bearman and co-author Paolo Parigi found in a December 2004 study that they conducted while Bearman was still at the University of North Carolina that half of the subjects who reported they didn't talk about anything to anyone didn't consider themselves isolated. They simply had nothing important to say. And, in fact, the "important matters" his subjects said they shared with their confidants were, well, not that important. Haircuts, for example, was among them.

"The general assumption is that people talk about matters important to them with people important to them," writes Bearman. "But if the matters are not really important, it is possible that they talk about them with people who are not really important."

CBSNews.com editorial director Dick Meyer found roughly half the readers who e-mailed him about his June 29 column on the University of Arizona/Duke University study claimed to be "lonely by choice." Many of them sounded like reader "Holly" who told Meyer she avoids people whenever possible because they're so rude, angry, inconsiderate, impatient and, yes, have "no tolerance at all." Or, as others wrote, it's better to be lonely than deal with people who are too sensitive, too litigious and too morally bereft. Our ties to one another are becoming ever more complex, freighted by technology and constantly changeable as we go about our transient lives. Who can measure them any more? Like a prism, the closer you look the more fractured the image becomes.

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