Many of us were chilled to read the recent story of Yvette Vickers, the 83-year-old former Playboy bunny and B-movie actress whose body was found in her home by a neighbor in August of 2011. It’s true that some elderly people do die at home alone, and the public are saddened by this.
In the case of Yvette Vickers, that sadness is tinged with a chill, for Miss Vickers had been dead for several months – possibly up to a year – before the discovery of her dessicated body.With no children or close family, and bedevilled by issues including alcohol abuse and paranoia, the once glamorous woman maintained a social life of sorts – on Facebook. Her number of connections had grown, but the substance of those connections was so shallow that none of her online acquaintances had enough context of her life to find anything amiss in her absence in the virtual space.
Social scientists like Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociologist, theorize that social media platforms like Facebook homogenize communication with “friends” – who can occupy any level in our intimacy hierarchy, from close confidante to the most occasional acquaintance. When what is shared for the whole pool is aimed at the “need to know” factor for the most casual “friend”, that information necessarily becomes the lightest of light messages.
Some observers theorize that our shallow online connections are a result of the easy anonymous rudeness of the internet and fast, shallow messaging technologies – Twitter and texting, for example. Other social scientists blame modern communication problems on the phenomenon of aspiring to huge numbers of Facebook friends. It all comes down to Dunbar’s number, they say.
Dr. Dunbar, an Oxford scientist, contends that the measurement of our orbital region of our brain correlates to the number of friends we are able to maintain in our social circles. For most of us, this translates into just under 150 friends. When we try to maintain relationships beyond that number, we become stressed and the quality of our relationships may suffer. Interesting, most people have about 150 Facebook friends.
None of this, though, really helps people like Yvette Vickers. A huge net of Internet friends, kept at a distance, could not affect the real loneliness and alienation that the woman felt. When online relationships became a substitute for the real thing, that alienation and isolation became complete.
Ironically, Yvette Vicker’s computer was still running as much as a year after her last Facebook post, its flickering screen dimly lighting the room when she was finally found.