Leftovers: The metaverse can be a lonely place

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I once did that Facebook thing where I asked my friends to respond with one or two sentences or share a photo to describe how we first met.

It was several years ago and the point was to weed out those who were friends-of-friends, random friend requests I accepted in haste, and to get rid of daily posts from people who were so many degrees removed that they never even wished me a happy birthday.

Natalie LaddAt that time, the magic of Facebook was still novel and above all, it was a great way to keep tabs on my millennial daughters. (It wasn’t until much later that Facebook was replaced by LinkedIn for professional matters of business networking and such, and along with that platform came Twitter and Snapchat.)

My tech-savvy daughters learned how to duck me and like many people I knew, I had repeatedly overcome and then relapsed into my nightly addiction down the Facebook rabbit hole. These days, I go on in spurts and look to Facebook for amusing memes and clever dog videos. Mostly, it has become useful for private messaging when I can’t find my phone and for town crying when I’m outraged.

Many studies have been done about the blurred lines between the oxymoronic term “virtual-reality.” And about the threat the concept presents to developing adolescent brains, the way it reinforces edited body images, and teases flashy, unattainable lifestyles. But I have yet to see anything about how Facebook in particular missed the boat in addressing the epidemic of loneliness during the height of COVID-19. 

Before I get pelted with web addresses to sites no one ever heard of, I’ll acknowledge there are online mental health opportunities, virtual classes and activities, and the ever-present Zoom and Google apps for work meetings or family time. I’ll also admit I’m a first-string armchair quarterback and no one really knew how long we’d be in quarantine. That, and the reality that the internet is often a dark, scary place where people are misled, swindled, catfished, and so much worse. 

But one thing is sure: many lonely Americans of all ages became even more so during the pandemic.

Why didn’t the federal government or some do-good agency set up a vetted, free, keyboard pal or Facetime type of network? Wouldn’t that have been a great use of our tax dollars? Or better yet, donations via structured grants to nonprofits to develop the software, and pair up those who applied to the program? Just think of the health benefits, mental and otherwise. 

Meta Platforms (the parent company formerly known as Facebook) has tried to address the complicated problem presented by research that shows its app makes some people lonelier and others feel more connected. There’s no shame in their game when they say their advertising revenue is tied to user happiness, and all of it hinges on how and why an individual utilizes the platform. Like most things worth understanding, the sweet spot is ever-changing. In this case, naysayers will tell us such a project would violate privacy, but I say our brilliant programmers will tie in all the necessary safeguards. 

Utilizing technology to alleviate loneliness is not a new idea, just an underdeveloped one. Most of our efforts are conducted at the university level, aimed at intergenerational matchmaking. They have great names like Mon Ami and Big & Mini, but nothing as far-reaching as Facebook. 

Those who see such an effort as trite should be aware that England established a Ministry of Loneliness in 2018, long before anyone wore a facemask for something other than a robbery. (Seriously.) Our own U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, wrote a book in 2020 called “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.” But we as a country looked away from his recommended solutions and the solutions suggested by others. 

Looking away is one of our go-to solutions in and of itself, and one of our biggest failures. 

As for my own Facebook use, I’m scaling way back again, even from the memes and cute dog videos. Despite my own inner awareness, I’m one of the people who slinked back into comparing and contrasting my own life to that of almost strangers on my soon-to-be-edited list of friends. It’s not fun, healthy, interesting, or intellectually stimulating.

Mark Zuckerburg is not my friend and I don’t follow him on any app, social or otherwise. But, if any of you have a connection to the guy, please let him know that I’ll sign-up for Facebook’s “Connection Across America,” program once he develops and rolls it out. I’ll encourage all of you to partake as well. 

Oh, and as far as keeping tabs on my millennial daughters, I now pick up the phone and we have conversations. Things are a lot less lonely that way.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].