Home alone, but entertained

Alienation: As Americans seek out solitary amusements, a sense of common identity may be lost.

June 05, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Unmarried and 27 years old, Hugh Norton could be out every evening, partaking in Washington's endless offerings of music, theater, film, sports, dining and clubs.

But after working a typically long day at an Alexandria, Va., public relations firm, Norton simply heads home to Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

Forgoing a movie out, he'll pop in a DVD. Instead of hitting the bars, he'll turn on his laptop and e-mail friends or play video games. Rather than head to a mall, he just shops online. Restaurants? He can grill a better burger at home.

"I don't need to make any more friends. It's expensive to go out all the time, and I don't like to be in large groups of people I don't know," Norton says.

Five years ago, Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam warned that Americans are increasingly "bowling alone," turning away from get-togethers with friends and family, shunning memberships in Rotary clubs, bowling leagues and the social networks that strengthen a community's fabric.

Today, many signs indicate that Americans are further alienating themselves. Attendance at movies and concerts is down, while movie rentals and music downloads are up. Festivals, fairs and historic sites have seen drops in attendance, while digital - and largely solitary - amusements like video games and surfing the Internet have grown more popular.

The shared experience, experts say, could be in danger of vanishing.

"It's the privatization of entertainment," says Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University's College of Health and Human Development.

He and others who have studied the phenomenon say entertainment and leisure are increasingly fragmenting. Years ago, a family would gather at 8 p.m. to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, probably on what was the only television in the house. Today, family members are in separate rooms in front of separate screens, because the mass media have splintered into infinitely specialized media. Now, Mom is watching Desperate Housewives upstairs, Dad has ESPN on downstairs and the kids are in their rooms, picking from hundreds of TV and radio stations, or messaging friends while scrolling through Web sites on their computers.

Norton remembers how, as a student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, he and his three roommates would come home from classes and turn on the TV, settling down in front of their laptops to play solitaire in the same room - stopping only when the pizza one of them ordered online was delivered.

Disturbing trend

But even as Americans have grown accustomed to such disconnected lives, there are those to whom this is a disturbing trend.

"This is a really formidable problem," says sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who wrote The Great Good Place, which discusses the importance of public gathering spots. Oldenburg is a proponent of what he calls the "third place," that tavern or health club that is neither home nor work, but an informal gathering place to meet friends or otherwise connect.

"I think the home is increasingly becoming a refuge," he says. "When the economy is good, it's not such a problem. But when the economy is bad, that's when you have trouble. People have no one to turn to for help.

"There's an attempt to make the home a substitute for the community, and it just can't do it," he says.

The activities and products seeing a spike in interest over the past few years are those that enable consumers to withdraw into their own worlds, while those on the downswing tend to toss strangers into a common space.

Last summer, the music industry experienced a 6 percent slump in concert ticket sales. This year, movie attendance is down 8 percent, continuing its slide over the past few years. The Orioles are leading their division, yet drawing franchise-low attendance at Camden Yards.

The 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while museums and musicals saw a rise in attendance, festivals, fairs and historic sites saw a drop over a 10-year period.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam found that pleasurable get-togethers have been waning over the past 25 years. Such events include having friends over to the house (down 45 percent), joining organizations that meet regularly (down more than 50 percent) and even spending time with family (down a third).

Too busy for socializing

Stressed Americans say they simply don't have time anymore. The problem for many is that being leisurely can be hard work when they are running just to keep up.

By the time Mary Beth Campbell finishes volunteering at her children's schools, chauffeuring her kids to different sports and running errands, all she wants to do is retreat to her home in Millersville. It's rare that you'll find Campbell and her husband, Timothy, an executive vice president at Villa Julie College, out during the week.

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