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Marian Salzman

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The New Social Order

Posted: 12/05/11 07:12 PM ET

Does the notion of "me time" almost always mean "we time" in this decidedly social age (even if me plus one or more is virtual)?

I wonder what Greta Garbo (who infamously crafted a reluctant catchphrase in the movie Grand Hotel: "I want to be alone") would think of alone time circa 2011? Later in life she discounted the plea and said, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be left alone.'" More recently, Andy Rooney's emotional farewell included both a nod to his desire to be left alone and a shout-out to the broad public who reached out to him all kinds of ways, including email.

Regardless of whether you're an American icon, an aging starlet or a fatigued social media stalwart, one thing is clear: We are never really alone, or left alone, anymore. Our society (socialiety?) has succumbed to a full-on state of co-dependence. We upload photos of ourselves in dressing rooms to solicit opinions from friends, we collaborate in the office over clouds and texts and Skype calls. We come home from lunch, dinner or a date and broadcast our thoughts to our extended social networks. We can't seem to keep anything to ourselves anymore; nothing is sacred, private or not worth sharing. (Women post when they're fertile, men post about their erectile dysfunction; dysfunctional families duke out their differences on Twitter and Facebook -- and we all grin when we see one another and feign lack of knowledge about someone's intimacies, even though we know all. Or know all they've posted.) Though it's hard to imagine life without social media, there actually was a time when we weren't clued in to what an ex-college boyfriend ate for dinner.

There was also a time when, say, your spouse would go into the bank or the store and leave you sitting there, maybe scanning radio stations and staring at the scenery out the car window. Now, we bury ourselves in our smartphones for fear of doing nothing; we are codependent on our yearning to know about others and we're positively addicted to our gadgets and to staying connected. You can't even be alone on a plane anymore, because many flights now offer in-flight wi-fi to keep us connected from 35,000 feet. I'm grateful for the connectedness -- I just did a quick hit-and-run to Silicon Valley for an innovations conference and needed my sky-wi-fi, but part of me craves the transcontinental flight of yesteryear, when nobody could find me for a blissful six or seven hours and I could read a book, catch up on some magazine articles, get some work done sans interruptions or maybe, just maybe, veg out. (That's something else that died with all this connectivity -- my ability to play eggplant and think and do and communicate nothing.)

And all this "we time" is starting from the cradle. Sure, it's a cliché to say, "We're born alone, and we'll die alone," but is that really true these days? A friend of mine was tweeting within 30 minutes of giving birth, and her son had an email account and a full social life before he'd been through his first box of Pampers. Every moment of our life is now brought to you by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Is anything sacred anymore? Social commentator Jesse Kornbluth recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that he once had a boss who told him, "The real test of a relationship is how quickly you can get out of bed after making love to check your email."

We've seen all this screenaged existence backfire on those who spend less time alone than anyone: celebrities. Kim Kardashian's recent nuptials fail had many calling for a boycott of her family's reality show. It's hard to salvage credibility when you publicize every moment of your life; maybe the backlash against her quickie (divorce? separation? annulment?) would have stung less if she had gotten married in private, and without a supposed payday that beat winning lotto. Weirder still is that all these calls for privacy are taking place in the least private of places: online.

The case for co-dependence is at its apex in our growing "like" culture. We can't seem to go anywhere or do anything without asking the opinion of friends or agreeing to like everything from our local yogurt shop to a childhood friend's son's band. The constant search for approval has made us needier than ever; there used to be a small panel of experts who you summoned when you were going to see a film or eat at the latest restaurant downtown, but now everybody is an expert and every opinion counts in a culture that is constantly seeking validity. Although there are some great things about our fully transparent approach to life (as a response to bad business practices, it's great), do we really have to tell each other everything? Are we really that afraid to keep our thoughts and beliefs to ourselves?

The case for some solo time is going to be made in the years to come. Connection fatigue is going to lead to full-on exhaustion. It's not surprising that places such as Bhutan and Myanmar are becoming hot destinations for people searching for something a bit more enlightened and decidedly more disconnected. But I'm afraid that many of us are experiencing life through others' photos and that real "experiences" are becoming fewer and further between.

One area of life where flying solo is becoming the new normal is in nurturing life itself: parenting. We're seeing more people choosing to be a single parent. More than one of my friends, in fact, has commented that solo parenting is easier than the constant negotiations between partner parents over everything from religion to how strict is strict enough.

In terms of every other endeavor I can think of, though, we are never really alone for long. The quest for companionship has gone 2.0 to include thoughts and opinions and shared moments from people we might know only casually. Do we really know everyone in our social networks? Some people reject friend requests from people they don't know; others report that they've made genuine friendships with folks they met online.

But is our pursuit for anything but "me time" causing our constant need for connection to outweigh the ability to create real, lasting relationships? Are we going to go the way of Garbo, incognito and requesting a life led offscreen, and offline? I'm calling for some balance between co-dependence and being left alone: a day a week without social media, a spin class spent without a cellphone on the handlebars, and a dressing room foray where I try things on, completely alone and without judgment or the eyes of social media.

I'm thinking about Zappos these days, and its new social shopping endeavor called RNKD that will, according to Advertising Age, ask users to "share what they wear by uploading photos of their clothes and then tagging them by brand" in the hopes of securing badges through an assigned rank. For loyal brandlings, the reward will be access to products and discounts. Sigh. Doesn't that seem like too much trouble? Why on Earth would we want to do that? Are we really willing to sacrifice our privacy to secure deep discounts from our favorite brands?

In this new social order, look for "me time" to be the most coveted and exotic luxury brand there is -- regardless of rank, discount or number of Facebook friends.

 

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