I’ve seen my fair share of women cry in hair salons after color or cuts gone wrong, but I have only seen a salon employee cry once. It was my fault. I was dressed up and wearing makeup, so my colorist asked what the occasion was, and I told her I was attending a fundraiser for The Lonely Whale Foundation. When she inquired further about what it was for, I told her the story of 52, a blue whale nicknamed for the fact that his whale song goes out at 52 hertz, a frequency that other whales cannot hear. The scientists who detected him on sonar surmised that this must mean that he is alone, calling out in vain for a friend who will never hear him. My otherwise exuberant and talkative colorist went quiet for a moment, and then covered her mouth with her hand. As tears welled in her eyes, she looked at me in the mirror and said, “That’s…that’s just so sad.”
She was hardly the first person to be moved by the story. You could tell 100 people that thousands of whales are hunted, starving, and dying en masse right now, and most would probably acknowledge this grim reality with a shrug. But the story of one whale looking for friends but can’t find any because he can’t be understood? The aptness of the metaphor for humanity’s sense of social disconnection is a little too on the nose. If a first-year MFA student wrote 52 as a fictional character, his class would probably call it amateurish and saccharine. The problem is that being lonely is considered amateurish and saccharine in society. Saying “I’m lonely” is to confess to having the entirely unsophisticated need for friends and understanding. We consider these to be juvenile needs and signs of weakness — which is ironic, because loneliness seems to be more common than ever. We are living in what the New York Times calls “an epidemic of loneliness,” and the toll that loneliness is taking on public health is only beginning to reveal itself. While older adults are considered the most at-risk for health issues related to loneliness, survey data indicates that millennials report more feelings of loneliness than their older counterparts.
The fact that our generation feels lonely despite being “more connected than ever before” (whatever that means) makes us an easy target for those who love to blame us for our own suffering. This is especially easy when the psychological definition of loneliness tells us that it’s based on a person’s perception, and there aren’t really any external symptoms that can be diagnosed. And there’s nothing that older adults love to prescribe to younger adults — especially young women — more than a good old-fashioned attitude adjustment!
“To stop ‘alone’ from sliding into ‘lonely,’ start by recognizing that you are the one telling yourself that you feel lonely,” suggests a Wall Street Journal article from 2013 on loneliness. “Change the mental story you tell yourself. Remember that there are people who care about you; they may just be busy at the moment.”
In short: It’s all in your head, kiddo! Adding insult to injury, the author notes that when she thought she was being socially ignored, her phone was actually off, and in reality, she had 24 messages! That must be so nice for you. Such simplistic, bootstrapping remedies ignore the fact that many lonely people often don’t have such robust social networks. But we do have social media, and all of the humor and ambiguity that come with it. And so, amid a cultural hostility toward sentimentality and the distrust of millennials from older generations (even as some of us are well into our 30s), we’ve found a new way to express our loneliness.
Digital culture is now awash in memes that communicate our sense of isolation with self-aware jokes, many of which follow a specific formula: an image (often of an animal or non-living thing) plus a short piece of text that allows the poster to avoid significant vulnerability. Take, for example, the “it me” meme that became popular in 2014 and 2015. The concept was simple: Find an image or screenshot of text that represented a feeling, experience, or emotion and add only “it me” as the accompanying caption.
In these tweets, our very real emotions are conveyed in a softened, funny way using avatars, animals, and inanimate objects. It’s almost as if we think that, by comically over-exaggerating our feelings and turning them into actual objects (liked ripped out hearts or bubble wrap), we can safely express our loneliness and alienation. We’re being vulnerable — but not too vulnerable — and we’re presenting our feelings to the world in a pretty, easy-to-digest package: a clever, self-aware quip. This new language communicates that we’re in on the joke of how pathetic emotions are deemed, and offers us an easy way out if and when people inquire — you were just joking, after all. I can’t tell if any of the above tweets were just for laughs or if they were attempts to communicate genuine feeling, and I wrote one of them!
Others are more certain that these memes and modes of communication come from a place of true loneliness. “We retweet these jokes forgetting that it comes from a real place. The majority of people I’ve met online are people who are unhappy (in a bad marriage, living in a rural area, have no friends, etc.), so they use humor to distract from their reality,” says Pearl Parker, a 33-year-old editor in Australia who had a relatively popular Twitter account full of self-deprecating jokes about her own loneliness and sadness (which she has since deleted).
B.N. Harrison, a 35-year-old freelance writer who moved from Baltimore to a more rural location last year, has a habit of posting ambiguously emotional posts on social media, because she feels chronically lonely. “I do have a screencap of a post I made the other night with a picture of the cookies I’d just made, captioned ‘Who’s coming over?’ which sounds like a totally normal joke to make, but no — actually, I was depressed as fuck that I’d made 36 oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and had not a damn soul to share them with, and extending an invitation no one could possibly accept was part of that.” So, while social media won’t necessarily teleport friends who will share your freshly baked cookies with you into your kitchen (not yet, at least), it does provide people like Harrison with an outlet to express feelings in a public, albeit oftentimes veiled, way.
“The whole reason I took up making jokes on Twitter was to curb my tendency to talk about my own personal business. Now, if I feel some type of way, instead of subtweeting or over-sharing my life, I deflect,” writes Safy-Hallan Farah in an essay for Paper magazine on the “it me” meme of 2014-2015. “That is what ‘it me’ does, though in way less words. Sometimes not only in less words, but in other people's words — and images — creating distance and making us seem smaller. That distance and smallness is ironic detachment, sure, but there are still actual displays of vulnerability.”
Another variation of the formula involves using the abbreviation “tfw” (that feeling when) + the description of an event or emotion + a funny piece of visual media.
But unlike the “it me” meme, these tweets aren’t attempts to deflect or skirt the issue of the Twitter user’s own feelings of loneliness — by writing “tfw,” you’re copping to feeling the stated emotion, albeit in a lighthearted manner, as opposed to the verb-less statement “it me.”
And sure, these jokes and memes can be simplistic, but they do one very important thing: They foster a sense of community in an oft-isolating world. A study published in 2016 in Computers in Human Behavior found that image-based social media platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat, had the ability to ameliorate loneliness by creating more intimacy, whereas text-based platforms did not. Meaning: The images in those memes are important. “Even if it’s not 100% authentic, there is still some catharsis in sharing, even if it is ironically detached,” says Matthew Pittman, a co-author of the study, of the self-aware jokes about loneliness that can be found across social media channels.
It is telling that, in searching for terms like “tfw lonely” and “tfw die alone,” the more earnest posts with no images are rarely ever favorited, while the jokes about loneliness accompanied by ridiculous images garner favorites and retweets. And while it’s tempting to scold social media users who don’t reach out and acknowledge those whose suffering is stated in decidedly less amusing ways, as 52 has shown us, humans can sometimes be far more generous with non-humans experiencing loneliness than we are with lonely fellow humans. Just consider some of our most popular lonely movie characters, like E.T., Shrek, and Wall-E. How many people have pointed to that deserted robot at least once and thought, “It me”?
Of course, even though these memes on social media are giving us a language to express our isolation, that hasn’t stopped alarmists from blaming social media for the declining rates of marriage and birth, and therefore the spread of loneliness. The result is that we end up with irresponsible theories about social media use by people who still think it’s remarkably interesting that they don’t have a Facebook account (not to mention author Andrew Sullivan’s long-winded narrative about society’s decay at the hands of the very internet that made him famous). But there’s plenty of evidence that social media can — and does — create enduring connections and alleviate loneliness. It just might involve a little loneliness rebranding in the form of funny dog photos.
“Part of why loneliness persists is that we have this media buffet and we have all these options, and we just keep eating cotton candy and we wonder why we’re still hungry, because we’re not choosing the things that would actually sustain us,” Pittman says. The prescription might not be as simple as “less Twitter, more Instagram,” but making sure that what you see on social media doesn't reinforce feelings of isolation and, yes, that it has pictures, is a best practice.
The effectiveness of this was both confirmed and complicated by the young women with whom I spoke about their tendency to share these memes. “I share witty, sanitized versions of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, which is better (maybe?) than not sharing at all,” says Erin*, a 24-year-old English teacher living in “the burbs” (as she put it) who asked to remain anonymous. “The particular community on Twitter especially is comforting inasmuch as it validates my feelings and reminds me that there are other people struggling with similar issues. But very rarely does that translate into, you know, a ‘breakthrough’ or any kind of meaningful transformation or growth on my part.”
All of this doesn’t change the fact that loneliness is a public health crisis. So what obligation do we have to change that? It’s a complicated question, and for researchers, it only raises more questions. “Insofar as loneliness can be combatted by reducing another’s social isolation, are we duty-bound to ensure that others do not remain socially isolated insofar as it is possible for us to do so (consistent with our other obligations)? And what is the scope of such a duty, if we have it? Whose social isolation are we responsible to combat — only those we know, only those to whom we are related?” asks Wendy Salkin of Harvard, in a round-up of studies linking loneliness to poor health outcomes and premature death.
It’s a tall order to ask that everyone who witnesses possible loneliness online invite a stranger to dinner or encourage them to join a sports league or pottery class. Those are future steps that we can aspire to. But, in the meantime, we can recognize these messages and memes in the depths of the often lonely internet, and when people tell the ether, “It me,” we can reply with small gestures that say, “Me too.” We can add one little digital heartbeat to the calls they send out to no one in particular and simply say, “I heard you.”