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Alone Together

Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist at NYU who’s in the midst of writing a book called Alone in America. He and his researchers have interviewed over 200 “solitaires” (his term) about their experiences, 160 of them from New York City. “I’m concerned about poor and elderly people who live alone,” he says. “I’m concerned about the sick who live alone. But we have to address the question of why, in other stages of their lives, people are opting to be alone, and we have to wrestle with the question of why many people who are elderly would rather live alone than move in with their children.” He offers a few hypotheses: That living alone is a crucial rite of passage into adulthood. That it’s a sign of economic achievement. That it’s a form of self-cultivation and living authentically, a reaction to the stifling compromises made by the cornered souls of Mad Men.

In my own life, I’d make the case that my single friends gave me the imagination to envisage a life without marriage, which meant I didn’t pair off too young. I also don’t think I’m going out on too weak a limb when I stipulate that cities, in which we have a large network of companions and a wide variety of activities to do with them, are better for marriages generally. The relationship researcher Arthur Aron has pointed out that new experiences, rather than repeated favorites, are the best way to keep romantic feelings alive in a marriage, based on a series of six studies of hundreds of couples.

Now seems like a good time to point out that New York State is tied for the fifth-lowest divorce rate in the nation. Isn’t it possible our marriages are simply better here?

And to the extent that suicide results from the tragic failure to socially integrate—one of the main ideas in Émile Durkheim’s 1897 classic, Suicide—then New York City’s suicide rate says something even more profound: New York State’s suicide rate is currently the third lowest in the nation (second if you discount Washington, D.C.), at 6.2 percent, and the city’s rate is even lower, at 5.4 percent. According to a report issued by the state’s Office of Mental Health, in fact, suicide statistics in New York follow a simple formula: The less populous the county, the higher the rate (with superdense Kings County, or Brooklyn, boasting the second lowest, at 4.4 per 100,000). The United States follows the same pattern, with suicides rising the more rural the area becomes. States with the worst suicide rates are the least dense. (Montana, Nevada, Alaska, New Mexico, and Wyoming are ranked, respectively, one through five.)

In terms of ameliorating loneliness, “friends substitute perfectly well for family,” says Harvard epidemiologist Lisa Berkman.

In the last decade, urbanism has converged, to some extent, with another field of study: Internet use. It’s probably not an accident. Both cities and the Internet are at once highly atomized and elaborately connected milieus that encourage both solitude and interaction with the diverse, bountiful unwashed. And like city solitaires, Internet users were also once identified as antisocial loners, painfully awkward people who vanished into the green-gray light of their computer screens rather than joining the warm community of man. In the beginning, studies even showed this to be true (or that users were shy, anyway). But not once three-quarters of the public started using the Internet.

“The idea that you’re isolated when you’re online is, to me, just wrong,” says Keith Hampton, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who did an extensive ethnography of “Netville,” a new, 100 percent wired community in suburban Toronto. “It’s an inherently social medium. What starts online moves offline, and what starts offline goes online.” Which explains why the people with whom you e-mail most frequently are your closest friends and romantic partners. “Online and offline life are inherently connected,” he says. “They’re not separate worlds.”

In fact, many Internet and city behaviors we consider antisocial have social consequences. Think of people who lug their laptops into public settings. In 2004, Hampton and his colleagues looked at just those people—at Starbucks, in fact, in Seattle and Boston—and concluded that a full third of them were basically using their laptops and interacting at the same time. (Cafés, in other words, were like dog runs, and laptops were like pugs, encouraging interaction among solitaries.) Hampton did a similar study of laptop users in Bryant Park, and the same proportion, or one-third, reported meeting someone they hadn’t before. Fifteen percent of them kept in touch with that person over time (meaning that about 5 percent made lasting ties out of a trip to Bryant Park with a laptop).

It’s easy to see the parallels here between attitudes toward online use and attitudes toward solitary living. Perhaps there was once a time when living alone meant you were a hopeless shut-in. But you can’t exactly say this if 50 percent of the households in Manhattan contain just one person. Like Internet users, solitaires have a permanent and ambient sense of the world beyond their living rooms and a fluid sense of when to join it and when to retreat. Klinenberg, the NYU professor who is writing about living alone, points out that single people are partly responsible for the vibrancy of New York’s public life: “We know from marketing surveys that single people go out more than couples,” he notes. “They’re more likely to go to restaurants, to bars, and to clubs. A lot of people who live alone say it’s very hard to enter their apartments and stare at the walls when there’s so much going on outside.”