Scientists call it the Naked Photo Test, and it works like this: say a photo turns up of you nakedly doing something that would shame you and your family for generations. Bestiality, perhaps. Ask yourself how many people in your life you would trust with that photo. If you're like the rest of us, you probably have at most two.
Even more depressing, studies show that about one out of four people have no one they can confide in.
The average number of close friends we say we have is dropping fast, down dramatically in just the last 20 years. Why?
#1. We don't have enough annoying strangers in our lives.
That's not sarcasm. Annoyance is something you build up a tolerance to, like alcohol or a bad smell. The more we're able to edit the annoyance out of our lives, the less we're able to handle it.
The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid annoying people. Do all your Christmas shopping online and avoid the fat lady ramming her cart into you at Target. Spend $5,000 on a home theater system so you can see movies on a big screen without a toddler kicking the back of your seat. Hell, rent the DVD's from Netflix and you don't even have to spend the 30 seconds with the confused kid working the register at Blockbuster.
Get stuck in the waiting room at the doctor? No way we're striking up a conversation with the smelly old man in the next seat. We'll plug the iPod into our ears and have a text conversation with a friend or play our DS. Filter that annoyance right out of our world.
Now that would be awesome if it were actually possible to keep all of the irritating shit out of your life. But, it's not. It never will be. As long as you have needs, you'll have to deal with people you can't stand from time to time. We're losing that skill, the one that lets us deal with strangers and tolerate their shrill voices and clunky senses of humor and body odor and squeaky shoes. So, what encounters you do have with the outside world, the world you can't control, make you want to go on a screaming crotch-punching spree.
Oh, yeah. Right in the crotch, buddy.
#2. We don't have enough annoying friends, either.
Lots of us were born into towns full of people we couldn't stand. As a kid, maybe you found yourself in an elementary school classroom, packed in with two dozen kids you did not choose and who shared none of your tastes or interests. Maybe you got beat up a lot.
But, you've grown up. And if you're, say, a huge DragonForce fan, you can go find their forum and meet a dozen people just like you. Or even better, start a private room with your favorite few and lock everybody else out. Say goodbye to the tedious, awkward, painful process of dealing with somebody who's truly different. That's another Old World inconvenience, like having to wash your clothes in a creek or wait for a raccoon to wander by the outhouse so you can wipe your ass with it.
The problem is that peacefully dealing with incompatible people is crucial to living in a society. In fact, if you think about it, peacefully dealing with people you can't stand is society. Just people with opposite tastes and conflicting personalities sharing space and cooperating, often through gritted teeth.
Fifty years ago, you had to sit in a crowded room to see a movie. You didn't get to choose; you either did that or you missed the movie. When you got a new car, everyone on the block came and stood in your yard to look it over. You can bet that some of those people were assholes.
Your parents, circa 1982
Yet, on the whole, people back then were apparently happier in their jobs and more satisfied with their lives. And get this: They had more friends.
That's right. Even though they had almost no ability to filter their peers according to common interests (hell, often you were just friends with the guy who happened to live next door), they still came up with more close friends than we have now-people they could trust.
It turns out, apparently, that after you get over that first irritation, after you shed your shell of "they listen to different music because they wouldn't understand mine" superiority, there's a sort of comfort in needing other people and being needed on a level beyond common interests. It turns out humans are social animals after all. And that ability to suffer fools, to tolerate annoyance, that's literally the one single thing that allows you to function in a world populated by other people who aren't you. Otherwise, you turn emo. Science has proven it.
#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.
I have this friend who uses the expression "No, thank you," in a sarcastic way. It means, "I'd rather be shot in the face." He puts a little ironic lilt on the last two words that lets you know. You ask, "Want to go see that new Rob Schneider movie?" And, he'll say, "No, thank you."
So one day we had this exchange via text:
Me: "Hey, do you want me to bring over that leftover chili I made?"
Him: "No, thank you"
That pissed me off. I'm proud of my chili. It takes four days to make it. I grind up the dried peppers myself; the meat is expensive, hand-tortured veal. And, now my offer to give him some is dismissed with his bitchy catchphrase?
I didn't speak to him for six months. He sent me a letter, I mailed it back, unread, with a dead rat packed inside.
It was my wife who finally ran into him and realized that the "No, thank you" he replied with was not meant to be sarcastic, but was a literal, "No, but thank you for offering." He had no room in his freezer, it turns out.
The Sad Bear #2, by Nedroid
So did we really need a study to tell us that more than 40 percent of what you say in an e-mail is misunderstood? Well, they did one anyway.
How many of your friends have you only spoken with online? If 40 percent of your personality has gotten lost in the text transition, do these people even really know you? The people who dislike you via text, on message boards or chatrooms or whatever, is it because you're really incompatible? Or, is it because of the misunderstood 40 percent? And, what about the ones who like you?
Many of us try to make up that difference in sheer numbers, piling up six dozen friends on MySpace. But here's the problem ...
#4. Online company only makes us lonelier.
When someone speaks to you face-to-face, what percentage of the meaning is actually in the words, as opposed to the body language and tone of voice? Take a guess.
It's 7 percent. The other 93 percent is nonverbal, according to studies. No, I don't know how they arrived at that exact number. They have a machine or something. But we didn't need it. I mean, come on. Most of our humor is sarcasm, and sarcasm is just mismatching the words with the tone. Like my friend's "No, thank you."
You don't wait for a girl to verbally tell you she likes you. It's the sparkle in her eyes, her posture, the way she grabs your head and shoves your face into her boobs.
That's the crux of the problem. That human ability to absorb the moods of others through that kind of subconscious osmosis is crucial. Kids born without it are considered mentally handicapped. People who have lots of it are called "charismatic" and become movie stars and politicians. It's not what they say; it's this energy they put off that makes us feel good about ourselves.
When we're living in Text World, all that is stripped away. There's a weird side effect to it, too: absent a sense of the other person's mood, every line we read gets filtered through our own mood instead. The reason I read my friend's chili message as sarcastic was because I was in an irritable mood. In that state of mind, I was eager to be offended.
And worse, if I do enough of my communicating this way, my mood never changes. After all, people keep saying nasty things to me! Of course I'm depressed! It's me against the world!
No, what I need is somebody to shake me by the shoulders and snap me out of it. Which leads us to No. 5 ...
#5. We don't get criticized enough.
Most of what sucks about not having close friends isn't the missed birthday parties or the sad, single-player games of ping pong with the wall. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism.
In my time online I've been called "fag" approximately 104,165 times. I keep an Excel spreadsheet. I've also been called "asshole" and "cockweasel" and "fuckcamel" and "cuntwaffle" and "shitglutton" and "porksword" and "wangbasket" and "shitwhistle" and "thundercunt" and "fartminge" and "shitflannel" and "knobgoblin" and "boring."
And none of it mattered, because none of those people knew me well enough to really hit the target. I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized very little. And don't ever confuse the two. An insult is just someone who hates you making a noise to indicate their hatred. A barking dog. Criticism is someone trying to help you, by telling you something about yourself that you were a little too comfortable not knowing.
Above: A flamboyant transvestite with about
five times as many friends as the average person
Tragically, there are now a whole lot of people who never have those conversations. The interventions, the brutal honesty, the, "you know, everybody's pissed off because of what you said last night, but nobody wants to say anything because they're afraid of you," sort of conversations. Those horrible, awkward, wrenchingly uncomfortable sessions that you can only have with someone who sees right to the center of you.
E-mail and texting are awesome tools for avoiding that level of honesty. With text, you can respond when you feel like it. You can measure your words. You can pick and choose which questions to answer. The person on the other end can't see your face, can't see you get nervous, can't detect when you're lying. You have almost total control and as a result that other person never sees past your armor, never sees you at your worst, never knows the embarrassing little things about yourself that you can't control. Gone are the common quirks, humiliations and vulnerabilities that real friendships are built on.
Browse around people's MySpace pages, look at the characters they create for themselves. If you've built a pool of friends via a blog, building yourself up as a misunderstood, mysterious Master of the Night, it's kind of hard to log on and talk about how you went to prom and got diarrhea out on the dance floor. You never get to really be yourself, and that's a very lonely feeling.
And, on top of all that ...
#6. We're victims of the Outrage Machine.
A whole lot of the people still reading this are saying, "Of course I'm depressed! People are starving! America has turned into Nazi Germany! My parents watch retarded television shows and talk about them for hours afterward! People are dying in meaningless wars all over the world!"
But how did we wind up with a more negative view of the world than our parents? Or grandparents? Back then, people didn't live as long and babies died more often. Diseases were more common. In those days, if your buddy moved away the only way to communicate was with pen and paper and a stamp. We have Iraq, but our parents had Vietnam (which killed 50 times more people) and their parents had World War 2 (which killed 1,000 times as many). Some of your grandparents grew up at a time when nobody had air conditioning. All of their parents grew up without it.
We are physically better off today in every possible way in which such things can be measured ... but you sure as hell wouldn't know that if you're getting your news online. Why?
Well, ask yourself: If some music site posts an article called, "Fall Out Boy is a Fine Band" and on the same day posts another one called, "Fall Out Boy is the Shittiest Fucking Band of the Last 100 Years, Say Experts," which do you think will get the most traffic? The second one wins in a blowout. Outrage manufactures word-of-mouth.
The news blogs many of you read? The people running them know the same thing. Every site is in a dogfight for traffic (even if they don't run ads, they still measure their success by the size of their audience) and so they carefully pick through the wires for the most inflammatory story possible. The other blogs start echoing the same story from the same point of view. If you want, you can surf all day and never swim out of the warm, stagnant waters of the "aren't those bastards evil" pool.
Actually, if you count the guy holding the camera, this man
statistically has more friends than most of us do.
Only in that climate could those silly 9/11 conspiracy theories come about (saying the Bush administration and the FDNY blew up the towers, and that the planes were holograms). To hear these people talk, every opposing politician is Hitler, and every election is the freaking apocalypse. All because it keeps you reading.
9/11 photos. Circled: Conspiracy
This wasn't as much a problem in the old days, of course. Some of us remember having only three channels on TV. That's right. Three. We're talking about the '80s here. So there was something unifying in the way we all sat down to watch the same news, all of it coming from the same point of view. Even if the point of view was retarded and wrong, even if some stories went criminally unreported, we at least all shared it.
That's over. There effectively is no "mass media" any more so, where before we disagreed because we saw the same news and interpreted it differently, now we disagree because we're seeing completely different freaking news. When we can't even agree on the basic facts, the differences become irreconcilable. That constant feeling of being at bitter odds with the rest of the world brings with it a tension that just builds and builds.
We humans used to have lots of natural ways to release that kind of angst. But these days...
#7. We feel worthless, because we actually are worth less.
There's one advantage to having mostly online friends, and it's one that nobody ever talks about :
They demand less from you.
Sure, you emotionally support them, comfort them after a breakup, maybe even talk them out of a suicide. But knowing someone in meatspace adds a whole, long list of annoying demands. Wasting your whole afternoon helping them fix their computer. Going to funerals with them. Toting them around in your car every day after theirs gets repossessed by the bank. Having them show up unannounced when you were just settling in to watch the Dirty Jobs marathon on the Discovery channel, then mentioning how hungry they are until you finally give them half your sandwich.
You have so much more control in Instant Messenger, or on a forum, or in World of Warcraft.
The problem is you are hard-wired by evolution to need to do things for people. Everybody for the last five thousand years seemed to realize this and then we suddenly forgot it in the last few decades. We get suicidal teens and scramble to teach them self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, self-esteem and the ability to like yourself only come after you've done something that makes you likable. You can't bullshit yourself. If I think Todd over here is worthless for sitting in his room all day, drinking Pabst and playing video games one-handed because he's masturbating with the other one, what will I think of myself if I do the same thing?
The Sad Bear #3, by Nedroid
You want to break out of that black tar pit of self-hatred? Brush the black hair out of your eyes, step away from the computer and buy a nice gift for someone you loathe. Send a card to your worst enemy. Make dinner for your mom and dad. Or just do something simple, with an tangible result. Go clean the leaves out of the gutter. Grow a damn plant.
It ain't rocket science; you are a social animal and thus you are born with little happiness hormones that are released into your bloodstream when you see a physical benefit to your actions. Think about all those teenagers in their dark rooms, glued to their PC's, turning every life problem into ridiculous melodrama. Why do they make those cuts on their arms? It's because making the pain-and subsequent healing-tangible releases endorphins they don't get otherwise. It's pain, but at least it's real.
That form of stress relief via mild discomfort used to be part of our daily lives, via our routine of hunting gazelles and gathering berries and climbing rocks and fighting bears. No more. This is why office jobs make so many of us miserable; we don't get any physical, tangible result from our work. But do construction out in the hot sun for two months, and for the rest of your life you can drive past a certain house and say, "Holy shit, I built that." Maybe that's why mass shootings are more common in offices than construction sites.
It's the kind of physical, dirt-under-your-nails satisfaction that you can only get by turning off the computer, going outdoors and re-connecting with the real world. That feeling, that "I built that" or "I grew that" or "I fed that guy" or "I made these pants" feeling, can't be matched by anything the internet has to offer.