The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans feel alone. Can YouTube videos and podcasts help?

A maker of “autonomous sensory meridian response” videos in Reisterstown. (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)

She looks a little like a rockabilly Liv Tyler in a red hoodie, and she’s leaning into the camera to speak to you. “Welcome back to our channel family,” she says at the top of the 37-minute YouTube video, “If you’re new here and you heard me say, ‘our channel,’ I want you to know, that it is our channel. . . . You guys have given me a family I never thought I had.” The short production is an ASMR video, a YouTube genre famed for triggering what seekers call the “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a tingly sensation that drifts over the neck and shoulders at certain sounds.

But there’s more to the ASMR world than nails tapping on ceramics or whispery narration. Consider some other titles in the field. “Tonight, Happy Christmas Together,” reads one, in which the host spends a warm holiday evening chatting softly with the listener. “Taking care of you after a party,” goes another, wherein the host prepares tea and oranges for the listener. In “Happy New Year! Relax & Get Ready With Me,” the listener follows along with the host as she puts on her makeup, like a pair of friends lingering a while before a night out. For a genre that could get by on curious noises and whispered “Moby-Dick” readings, ASMR videos often come with an emotional bonus feature: the promise of not feeling alone.

And Americans do feel alone — especially young ones. A Cigna survey released last spring found that about half of all respondents felt alone, with younger generations, Gen Z and millennials, scoring higher on the loneliness survey instrument than older generations. A British study published around the same time turned up similar results. But the trend has been developing for decades: A review of General Social Survey findings published in 2006 found that between 1985 and 2004, the share of Americans who say they have no close friends nearly tripled to make up a quarter of the population.

So maybe it’s no surprise that several forms of millennial-favored entertainment serve a dual purpose: supplying fresh and fun content on one hand, and re-creating the sensation of spending time among friends on the other. Along with the tingly camaraderie of ASMR videos, there’s also Twitch — a platform where viewers can watch others play video games (and occasionally other streamed performances) while chatting with them and fellow viewers in a sidebar. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose chief executive and founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Post.) Sure, the games are a huge draw. But so is the company. As one guide to running a successful Twitch stream recommends: “If you have some viewers watching, make sure to welcome them to the stream and ask them about their day, where they're watching from, or even if they have the same video game.” 

Then there’s the rise of the conversational podcast: shows that are less about particular topics (such as NPR’s finance-focused “Planet Money,” “This American Life’s” crime special spinoff “Serial” or Aaron Mahnke’s spooky deep-dive “Lore”) and more about listening to people you might like to spend time with chat about whatever comes to mind. “Chapo Trap House,” the left-wing comedy show about everything, falls into this category; so does “Doughboys,” a podcast that’s technically about chain restaurants but also about life in general. The experience of listening to the conversational podcast genre is much different from settling in for an important current events update or particularly interesting TED talk. It’s something more akin to laughing along with friends over whatever material happens to present itself — a horizontal experience more than a vertical one, to put it oddly.

Taken together, all these forms of entertainment have a simulation-like aspect to them, a feeling of good company that isn’t necessarily sought or present in traditional media and isn’t a bad thing, either. After all, modern loneliness, millennial and otherwise, isn’t caused by what I half-jokingly think of as the loneliness-industrial complex: In fact, these responses to the condition probably help to take the edge off. And if entertainment that keeps the bitter extremes of loneliness at bay weren’t available, it wouldn’t change the fact that modern life is an essentially lonely landscape. As with most problems of noticeable impact and size, contemporary isolation arises from a structure of root causes — pervasive individualism, the dislocation effects of school and work, the fraying of communities — which is greater and more persistent than the hopeful efforts of scattered individuals.

Maybe some of that will improve, or maybe it will only worsen with time. If trends continue in their current direction, we can at least count on the occasional video or podcast or Twitch binge to feel a little less alone, at least until the stream ends.  

Read more:

George F. Will: We have an epidemic of loneliness. How can we fix it?

Michael Hendrix: Young Americans’ loneliness sets the table for Friendsgiving

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Is America getting lonelier?

Christine Emba: Liberalism is loneliness

The Post’s View: America is losing ground to death and despair