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The significance of others

A study says Americans' personal ties are waning. Or maybe not -- if you count MySpace friends.

July 23, 2006|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

EVERY now and then, a study comes along that declares our modern life terminally fractured, inspiring weeks, sometimes years, of despairing headlines and intellectual navel-gazing. This year, it's the so-called friendship study, which announced that nearly one in four Americans has no confidants -- no spouse, no one -- nearly triple the number in 1985.

The findings have resonated high and low: grave warnings from world-weary columnists, a joke in a Jay Leno monologue. Story after story has heralded the study as revealing "a nation of isolation" and "casualties of the Internet age." That's because it certainly feels true. Sure, we work too much and commute too far to build anything more than a broad network of acquaintances. We hunker down within our immediate families.

But step back a little and another picture emerges. What about the mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary? The explosion of online networking, for example, being among the most notable, or our addiction to e-mail.... If we're all so isolated, as Leno pointed out, "who the hell is everyone talking to on their cellphones?"

Then there's the study itself and the news media's hasty interpretations. Of course, when it comes to academic research, few would accuse reporters of overly careful analysis, particularly when a "finding" such as this one promises such tantalizing, blockbuster bad news. Who could forget the June 1986 Newsweek article -- only recently retracted -- about the bogus notion that single women over 40 were more likely to get killed by terrorists than married? That story was embroidered into the culture. (The most recent findings, it turns out, show that women over 40 have more than a 40% chance of marrying.)

Or the study in May in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. That one showed that middle-aged Americans are more likely to go to the doctor than their English counterparts -- but many in the media looked at the study and concluded that Americans are sicker.

Academia's latest media stars are the friendship study's three co-authors, sociologists from Duke University and the University of Arizona, who are keeping tally of their press (400 mentions and counting), spending their days fielding interview requests, including those of three documentarians, magazines from Forbes to Elle and a gaggle of radio shows.

In some reports, the study's co-author and spokeswoman, Lynn Smith-Lovin, seemed to get a little carried away, using images of Hurricane Katrina victims stranded on rooftops to illustrate her findings. "It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them," she told Reuters. "It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?' "

Still, if reporters had just read the study closely, the stories would have been more nuanced, even more interesting.

For one thing, the friendship study isn't, as sociologists and demographers like to point out, even about friendship. It's about confidants, people you discuss personal matters with, who are just as likely to be your bank teller as your best friend.

But the whole notion of candor these days exists independent of friendship, as the culture of Internet exhibitionism seeps into -- and reshapes -- the "real" world. Blabbing into our cellphones, posting our personal stories on message boards and blogs, and wading through celebrity-tabloid minutiae, we've lost all sense of what's public and what's private. We spill and spill and spill on reality shows, on, on niche online groups. It's a wonder we have anything left to say, let alone need more of an audience.

Questionnaire questions

MANY sociologists consider the Smith-Lovin team's data solid because it's based on the General Social Survey, a questionnaire that has been widely used every year since 1972 to measure a variety of social, cultural and political shifts.

Though one experienced social networks expert -- who feared professional backlash if named -- questioned whether the findings are a better reflection of the changing work ethic of interviewers from 1985 to 2004, the period the study compares, rather than our nation's purportedly growing isolation.

That's because the GSS requires the interviewer to "probe" if a subject lists fewer than five confidants. Probing leads to more questions; when a respondent lists no confidants, the interviewer can skip about a dozen questions. (Though the study's authors said they were concerned about that possibility, they also state that the "probe pattern" in the 1985 and 2004 surveys was "very similar.")

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