All of us can get lonely at times. It's part of human nature.
What some may not realize is living alone and being single are trends on the rise in the United States, as articulated by "The Disconnect: Why Are So Many Americans Living By Themselves?", a fantastic read from The New Yorker.
I'm both, by the way, right now: living alone and single.
How do we combat feelings of loneliness? Some turn to technology, which is ever-connecting us. But sometimes that's not enough. And sometimes, technology can make us feel even more lonely. We may be connected online, but offline may be different.
One New Yorker, Jeff Ragsdale, tried something interesting. He put his phone number down on a flyer, and put it up around Manhattan with the words, "If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me."
Sometimes those are the only words we need to hear. Often we don't hear them enough. And even if it's a complete stranger, sometimes all we're longing for is someone to talk to.
Inspired by this random note, I thought I'd try the same, but by posting that message to my Facebook subscribers and Twitter followers. I provided my Google Voice number to keep my "real" number private, though Google Voice very cleverly routes those texts and calls to my "real" phone. I added that if people prefer, they can text instead.
What happened? I was inundated with messages, mostly texts interestingly, some 118 in all in three hours last night (more coming in today). I received 7 phone calls, 6 of which I took. One landed in voicemail, though I texted that person back and we had a conversation.
About half of the messages/calls were from males, and half females, so that was really split. I was contacted from Florida, Michigan, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and elsewhere -- plus Canada and Puerto Rico.
What did we talk about? Anything, really. Careers, our lives, relationships, the New Yorker article, the media industry, the state of the country, where we're from, our faith, and much more.
The most comical moment came when a caller said she was so excited it was really me; she said she follows me on Facebook and felt "starstruck." I quickly laughed that off, thanked her and told her I'm just a regular guy. We went on to have a fascinating conversation.
This experiment taught me many things.
(1) People want to be connected: Who knows the reason they followed through with contacting me, in many cases a complete stranger (though interestingly, a few friends played along too). Maybe they were lonely, maybe they were curious, maybe they were bored. Whatever the reason, a good amount of people weren't afraid to do this, and that tells me people strive for connection.
(2) People open up with their phone: Folks were very personable in these texts and calls, open in sharing private details and tidbits on where they are in life. I found many of these messages surprising in that you wouldn't get them in a public Facebook comment or Twitter post, but via private text or phone calls, people were much more open. I won't share these stories as they were told in confidence, but they were interesting.
(3) Journalism as a whole might not be doing enough with text messaging: It's one of the lowest barrier mediums out there and as one person so brilliantly put it to me, it's the "people's medium." We get in a frenzy for social media, but when it comes to one of the most social (and popular?) mediums out there, we are not doing enough. And I don't just mean breaking news text alerts, but tip services, customer service perhaps, and just overall engagement, getting to know our readers. My experiment at 9pm on a Tuesday night tells me there's interest in the medium and connecting with journalists on a very human level too. Many of these folks could easily become sources or provide valuable tips, story ideas and feedback.
(4) Wonderful conversations can come about from random, serendipitous connection: I felt a mix of emotions from call-to-call, text-to-text, but most of all I felt connected -- and in a very fulfilling way, more so than Twitter or Facebook itself. There's only so many conversations you can have when you're restrained to 140 characters or status updates and a comment thread. The free-wheeling nature of text and phone makes them unique, especially with the rapid back-and-forth exchange you won't even find on email. These are underused technologies. And at their base they're all about human connections.
Related reading: "The Freedom and Perils of Living Alone" (New York Times)