The big business of loneliness

Christina Animashaun/Vox

This article was originally published in Vox.

“She ended up killing hundreds of people,” Emily says gravely. The soft-spoken 27-year-old blonde is telling her new housemate about Typhoid Mary. Emily moved into her Brooklyn apartment building two weeks ago and now finds herself watching the Oscars with people she hopes to call her friends, making small talk about mass death. Located in the basement of a three-story residence that houses 20 people, the TV room is crowded; disparate conversations come together and splinter off again. People are watching, but they’re also talking, sharing opinions and swapping movie trivia. The crowd is energetic, young, diverse.

This conversation — this warmth — is what Ben Smith is in the business of selling. Smith is the CEO and co-founder of Tribe, a co-living space with seven locations in Brooklyn whose motto is “We help you make friends.” Tribe offers furnished rooms at a premium: A bed in a shared room costs between $750 and $950, while prices for a single room range from $1,150 to $1,700. (Bathrooms and kitchens are shared.) According to Smith, however, “the product really is the people.”

The goal is to provide residents, many of whom are recent transplants to the city, with a premade social fabric. “New York can be an extremely isolating place, especially if you are here for a new job,” Smith says. It’s easy to fall into the trap of commuting to work and then going right back home if you don’t know anyone. “People have gone that route before living with us.”

This sad cyclical existence — room, office, room again — was Emily’s experience when she moved to San Francisco after college. Quiet but not shy, she worked with a very small team and didn’t connect with her Craigslist roommates. A year passed without her making a single close friend. “It was awful,” she says.

When she moved to New York earlier this winter, instead of turning to Craigslist, she looked up co-living places online. Tribe seemed the most community-oriented, so she applied, was accepted, and moved in. This time, she vowed, it would be different.

Emily’s experience is far from unusual. Loneliness is pervasive, particularly among younger people. We’re moving across the country, ripping ourselves away from social networks that can take years to construct. We’re delaying marriage and kids, or skipping them entirely. We’re working all the time, often alone, outside the confines of a traditional office and without the camaraderie of coworkers.

To be sure, there are valid, positive reasons to move, to live alone, to not marry or start a family, or to trade a 9-to-5 job for the flexibility of freelancing. But these societal shifts coincide with a rise in the percentage of people who report feeling adrift, lacking a sense of community or an offline support system.

Capitalism abhors a vacuum, and into this collective social void has stepped a fleet of companies and entrepreneurs selling an end to social isolation. Over the past decade, on-demand connection has become both a big business and a powerful marketing opportunity. From co-living apartments to coworking spaces to apps that help facilitate human connection, there is a lot of investment and infrastructure being built around services that help humans bond with other humans.

But does any of it work? Or is it just an expensive and, for many, inaccessible VC-funded Band-Aid on a much larger social problem?

Since its launch in 2010, WeWork, which was recently valued at $47 billion, has made facilitating connection an explicit part of its mission statement. As co-founder Miguel McKelvey told the New York Times, the company isn’t simply “building a work space.” Instead, it’s “building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild up the potential for human connection.” Hundreds of competitors have launched in cities across the country, with most promoting themselves not just as a place people can come to focus but as incubators of meaningful human interaction.

In 2016, WeWork launched WeLive, which takes the premise of coworking and ups the ante by having members live together. (Its official goal is to “transform the rigid and isolating housing model of yesterday into a flexible and community-driven experience for today.”) Since then, co-living has gone from an oddity to a fixture in cities like New York, Washington, DC, Austin, Texas, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver, which attract young transplants.

As shared work and living spaces have gone mainstream, so have services that help users make offline connections. Hey Vina, an app designed to help women develop new friendships, was founded in 2015. A few months later, the dating app Bumble launched Bumble BFF, which does the same thing. Today, there are enough friend-making apps that you can choose one based on your demographic: For new mothers looking to make other mom friends, there’s Peanut. For dog owners who want to meet other dog owners, there’s Meet My Dog. For those who want to find other people who share their hobbies, from learning a new language to “exploring your inner worlds with the careful use of entheogens,” there’s Meetup.

In various forms, all these companies are offering the promise of connection. “We’re doing this because we believe there is huge value in helping people be part of a community,” Tribe’s Smith says.

Social pain literally changes the way the mind works. Spearheaded by John Cacioppo, the late neuroscientist who studied loneliness for nearly two decades at the University of Chicago, researchers have found convincing evidence that when the condition is prolonged, it puts the brain into self-preservation mode. This is what makes loneliness such a tragedy — and a trap. Hypervigilant to social threats, the lonely brain detects them everywhere, wreaking havoc on the body by putting the nervous system on constant alert and spurring further isolation.

A recent nationwide survey of 20,000 adults found that nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out some or all of the time. What is often missed in the corresponding coverage, says Steve Cole, a genetics researcher at UCLA who frequently collaborated with Cacioppo, is that loneliness is not aloneness. Instead, it’s the subjective feeling that you lack meaningful relationships or a solid support system, an important distinction.

Modern life is studded with situations that sever us from our social network. Going to college, relocating for a job, losing a family member, becoming a new parent: All can momentarily thrust us into a state of social pain. “In the literature, there is a distinction between the chronically lonely and the temporally lonely,” says Alice Wang, an associate marketing professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business whose work focuses on the effects loneliness and social exclusion have on consumer behavior.

Unlike chronically lonely people, those who are situationally lonely — a good example is a first-semester college student who is removed from her friends and family — haven’t sunk into learned passivity. Instead, they hunger for connection. For this group, Wang says, connection-based services could help.

For the chronically lonely, it’s likely not enough. Placing someone whose brain is in overdrive into a social setting with strangers “could actually make things worse,” Cole says. These companies are attempting to address a clear societal need, but “we get confused by the hunger and what it’s for.”

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