Status Updates Mean No More Alone Time

There was a fascinating op-ed in the Boston Globe last week about how college students isolate themselves by hiding behind their mobile devices and social networks.

Will your backpack ever get anymore alone time with you?

The author, Charlotte Steinway, a senior at a local college, wrote:

“But the tragic, isolating thing is that we reach for our devices because we don’t want to seem lonely — which is causing us to avoid our peers and actually be lonely.”

But there is a flip side to this argument.  Is web connectivity also making us afraid to be alone?  Are we reaching a state where we simply don’t know how to experience things without sharing them?  For example, when I graduated from college, I bought a backpack and traveled Europe for more than two months.

I traveled alone.  Eleven countries – mostly by train.

This was at a time before the Internet explosion.  Before Facebook.  Before email.  Before the ubiquity of mobile devices.  And, yes, I know I’m dating myself.

My friends threw me a going away party.  The next morning I hugged my parents good-bye and then one of my best friends drove me to the airport.  I flew away from Boston and was gone – off the grid, except for the occasional phone call to my mother – for nearly 12 weeks.

I was 22 years old and discovered a lot about myself on that trip.  I experienced a full gamut of emotions.  I cried (once when I mistakenly got off a train in the middle of deserted train station in Switzerland.  I huddled alone and afraid in the dark for hours).  I experienced terror (once when a screaming East German soldier snatched my camera and ripped out the film for taking a photograph of a train station on the way to Berlin and another time when I was followed back to my hostel by two scary looking guys in Barcelona).  I felt true isolation (when hiking alone in the Austrian alps and hitchhiking through the Irish countryside).

I was forced to meet fellow travelers.  The two guys from Cleveland who planned to backpack western Europe for six weeks, but never left Amsterdam.  The crazy Australian guy that I crashed in a haystack with in Ireland.  The two Swedish sisters I met in Barcelona (no jokes, please).  The list goes on.

The point is: Can this experience happen now?

A 22-year-old on a similar trip today would be armed with a mobile phone and the web.  They would be blogging about the trip on Posterous.  Posting up-to-the moment photos and videos on Flickr and other social networks.  Status updates on Facebook and Twitter would be providing instant play-by-play on the trip.  Friends would be commenting and emailing their reactions and questions. Text messages would be flying back and forth.

The traveler would never quite leave home.  Never break from their social circle to experience the world as themselves – and by themselves.

So not only can you use social media and networks to isolate yourself (as Steinway argues), but you can also use them to never truly be isolated.

I wonder which is worse?

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4 Responses to “Status Updates Mean No More Alone Time”

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Non-stop social media has (almost) eliminated the opportunity for us to stay off the grid. Now it’s really difficult – you have to essentially go on vacation, turn off your phone, and absolutely refuse to turn it on. I was able to do this last summer when I went to the national parks in Utah. I was there one week with my fiance, but when we got back, it felt like a month. The lack of technology was so refreshing, I can’t wait to do it again!

  2. Hi Ben:
    Another downside: Many people also now consolidate work and personal lives on one mobile device so it almost becomes impossible to escape work when you’re on vacation.

  3. Alison Kenney May 10, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Hi George – I also studied abroad in the early 1990’s and the big issue for me was whether to establish a bank account abroad or to rely on American Express Travelers Checks, which could be stolen by gypsies….forget about communication more advanced than postcards! I think Ben’s right that just being inaccessible for a time is a statement. But you’ve also got a point that many people today might have a hard time not broadcasting their “status.” I think it’s interesting to wonder if this will continue or, if not, what will change our habits?


  1. Are you too connected? | Boston Kate's Blog - June 30, 2010

    […] Shell had a great post on this topic in regards to traveling. “Status Updates Means No More Alone Time” People are constantly giving play-by-plays of their trips, travels, daily tasks, food […]

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