Lonely local residents search for Craigslist companions
May 24, 2016
It’s 2:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and I’m staring blankly at my Gmail inbox, unsure of where to click first. It’s been eight hours since I posted a listing on Craigslist, and 49 responses already await me. The bold typeface of unread emails brings lewd subject lines requesting a wide array of sex acts, some that are just crazy enough to laugh at with my friends and others that make me cringe with their brash disregard for any sort of social decency.
I have to admit, I’m a little bit shocked. Not that people would send me inappropriate messages over the Internet—no, that’s practically a rite of passage online. But I’m naively surprised that making friends in an open community created for that sole purpose may be more complicated than it seems.
These 49 emails are replies to a listing I created seeking people who have met platonic friends through Craigslist who would be willing to talk to me about their experiences. Discounting the responses that were unrelated to my request, and frankly, a bit alarming, there were plenty of people who were eager to help me out and reflect on the Craigslist community.
Simply scrolling through the listings on Craigslist can be a study in the various forms of isolation present in some online communities. Vulgar posts, likely written by some of the same people who responded to my listing, unapologetically look for partners. Shy, self-deprecating listings look for others who share interest in things like anime or blogging. The site spans a cross-section of the local community, full of people who have not found social success in other areas of their lives, and while Craigslist tries to serve as an antidote to loneliness, isolation and anxiety can’t always be treated by a website.
A community like Craigslist can help, but overcoming loneliness is no small feat. Especially in the era of tech-dependency, when technology is expected to provide a solution to everything—the internet may provide a window to the world, but it can’t always create an emotionally fulfilling social life.
“Craigslist is an example of typical American loneliness,” said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “This loneliness is an unintended consequence of living in an individualistic society, where we move around a lot and care most about our own narcissistic needs.”
Craigslist has changed very little since its founding in 1995, when it originated as an email newsletter intended to share word of upcoming local events. The site, which launched in 1996, is broken into several sections, each with more specific subsections. A section for buying and selling items serves as an online garage sale where you can find anything from used bicycles to antique collectibles. Another section features job listings, which alone draws over 2 million new listings each month worldwide. A housing section lists apartments and homes being sold through the site by both by owners and brokers.
These listings put Craigslist on the map, drawing people away from hard-copy newspapers, where classified ads were previously published, and moving them online. “For Sale,” “Jobs,” and “Housing” are the most mainstream sections. Of the 60 million users per month in the U.S., plenty of people will happily sell their sofa to a stranger and never delve any further into Craigslist.
Alongside the commercial sector of the site, however, lies as smaller section labeled “Community,” separated slightly from the personal ads. In the “activities” and “strictly platonic” subsections, users can advertise something else: themselves.
While the personal ads seek romantic or sexual partners and serve as a free-form dating site, the “strictly platonic” and “activities” sections are simply seeking friendship, though it’s not uncommon for users to be bombarded with unwanted, explicit responses, as I saw firsthand. Many of these platonic listings are wistful descriptions of what the user seeks in a friend, or a detailed outline of an activity for which they hope to find a partner.
“I’ve been living in the Bay for half my life and honestly thought I would have more people I am on speaking terms with,” begins one ad, titled ‘Just some guy looking for friends in a non-sexual way.’ “Anyone around who is just socially stagnant and taking to craigslist, please feel free to respond.”
Loneliness in the Technological Age
This realm of Craigslist is by no means kept hidden, but a person who feels satisfied within their social lives may never stumble upon it. By nature, these sections draw those who have no one else to spend their time with, either for hobbies (“Good pool players wanted!”), a listening ear (“Any one kite flying—cheer up buddy”) or even just socializing through technology (“Looking for texting buddy”). These listings are quite frequent in “community”: within the span of one week in March, 948 ads were posted to “strictly platonic” in the SF Bay Area.
Many who write such posts start out on Craigslist just to hunt for an apartment or buy a skateboard before becoming involved with “community.” Ivo Cosentino, a 31-year-old man who immigrated from Argentina 10 years ago, originally looked for a job, then clicked his way to “strictly platonic.”
Ivo found himself feeling very alone in the United States after a falling out with the Church of Scientology. Having moved at age 21 to pursue Scientology as a leader at the MountainView location, his entire social fabric unraveled after an unhappy ending with the organization. As national leaders kept pushing him to take on larger and larger leadership roles, he became disillusioned with the church and found himself questioning the organization.
After losing this social structure, Ivo took to Craigslist. I responded to his ad, asking if he’d like to meet for coffee. Remembering horror stories of women who are murdered by people they meet online, I was originally nervous about this meeting, but my fears soon proved unwarranted.
Sitting solemnly clutching a plastic produce bag filled with folded papers and a pen, Ivo looks ill at ease in the February sun. His faded black polo, black jeans and black New Balance sneakers would allow him to slink down the streets unnoticed, which is exactly what he wants.
“I’m a simple guy,” Ivo said. “I’m not proud of everything I’ve done or I am, but that’s just how it is, not much I can do about it.”
His clear green eyes light up when he describes his passion for spirituality, metaphysics, and the paranormal. He runs his fingers through thinning salt and pepper hair when he pauses nervously, his self-consciousness about his Argentine accent overtaking a moment of extroversion.
Since May, Ivo has been posting in “strictly platonic” about once a week. He’s met with five potential friends—a coffee date here, a lunch outing there. Once, he spoke with a woman on the phone, who invited him to her house in the East Bay for a meditation group. Ivo attended, then added the woman on Facebook, but hasn’t seen her since. He continues to post brief blurbs describing himself and his desire for an “intergender friendship…. NOT to be confused with a serious or romantic relationship.” Oftentimes, he reposts an ad after a week has gone by without any responses.
Ivo’s niche interests are part of why he is more comfortable online, where he can speak only with people who share his love for war novels or discussing the afterlife. Bringing these topics up in a face-to-face conversation, he fears, might not go over so well with a coworker or neighbor who doesn’t find them so fascinating.
Plante says that a dependency on online communities can create a cyclical process of ostracism. The idea that there’s less rejection to fear online is a tantalizing one, but the end result may be even more social isolation. Nonverbal communication and taking social risks are both important factors in building bonds in a friendship, and the relationships forged without these elements aren’t always as emotionally fulfilling.
While Craigslist users operate their social lives from the safety of their homes and computers, they may be worsening the very social skills that brought them onto the site in the first place, relying on snap judgments based on short listings rather than practicing the social interactions that are key in building comfort in interpersonal situations.
“Why develop those social skills if there are shortcuts like online dating?” Plante said. “Using an online community to find specific types of people lessens the potential for rejection. But unlikely people can come together and find that they’re compatible. It just might not appear that way on their shopping list.”
Friends for Rent
The “shopping list” of characteristics speaks to an individualistic mindset that is pervasive on Craigslist. A user who is looking for a friend can have a set of criteria in mind and disengage anyone who doesn’t fit.
“It’s a ‘me’ community,” said David*, who looks for smoking buddies and friends to watch movies with in the “strictly platonic” section on Craigslist. “The idea is, ‘if you don’t fit into my little world, I’ll just delete you.’”
Despite being a self-described “lonely old man,” David’s smooth face and mischievous grin bring a lighter side to his 63-year-old frame. In simple blue jeans and brown work boots, he rolls up the sleeves of his blue and white striped shirt to pop the top off of his coffee.
The “Institute for Business and Technology” patch on his shirt represents his fresh start in recent years, taking classes to become an electrician and currently teaching at the school. His gray hair has been combed back, giving the spotlight to his light blue eyes.
“You know, it’s weird, because I really am a people-person,” David said. “I don’t use the drive-through when I go to McDonald’s. I like to walk in and say hello and talk to real people. So it’s kind of depressing that I’ve ended up on Craigslist.”
After David’s wife of 26 years died in a car accident, David’s life went into a tailspin of drugs, alcohol, homelessness and isolation. After a period of deep depression, Craigslist is where he turned, hiring a personal assistant for eight months to help him reorganize his life, paying taxes for the first time in several years, and getting an education.
Eventually, careful tiptoes into socializing came again, but they were minor: meeting with four or five people through Craigslist over the course of two years. Early on, he met with a woman who became a good friend for a month, but later rejected him and insulted him when she found out he was living in his car at the time. Later, he met with a woman to go geocaching, but he shied away when his social anxiety got the best of him. David still posts regularly, hoping to make friends who can keep his life interesting outside of work.
“I wouldn’t say no to meeting up with anybody,” he said.
Risks and Opportunities
Not everybody’s forays into friendship are so open-minded. While sitting at her home in east San Jose last year, 23-year-old Addie* slowly clicked her way through the depths of the Internet, eventually arriving on Craigslist. After two hours of scrolling and reading other personal ads, she hesitantly decided to give it a try. She had a very specific idea of the kind of people she hoped to meet—but had no way of ensuring that they would find her.
Feeling nervous and awkward, she created her first listing in “strictly platonic” looking for female friends. She received no responses in the first week, so she re-crafted her post to contain more personality, describing herself as a geeky girl, interested in hair dye and anime. After hearing back from a student in the area and exchanging a few emails (“you can tell a lot about a person by the way they email,” she said), she decided to try meeting her at a coffee shop. They had a couple things in common, like identifying as queer and being into realistic fiction, but otherwise seemed incompatible.
“I don’t want to hang out with people who are exactly like me,” Addie said. “If I did, I’d hang out with my sister.”
Looking for friends through clubs and interest-based organizations never got Addie the deeper friendship she was looking for. Her personality is unapologetically expressive—with her deep magenta hair and thick black winged eyeliner, she shows her funky side in every aspect of her life. But meeting people through activities and clubs seems too big a challenge, considering her social anxiety. Once, she attended a poet’s society meeting and made the mistake of criticizing hipsters, before realizing everyone in the room might be offended. They were, and she never went back. She considered that meeting, along with other attempts at face-to-face connection, a waste of time.
Addie feels that her experience is representative of many Craigslist users, but there is another end of the spectrum. Ray, a San Diego native, met his wife, Sandy, (not their real names) through “strictly platonic.” Both were, and remain, hyper-social people who thrive on sites like meetup.com and Craigslist. Here, they keep themselves occupied and continually meet new people, which they can never get enough of. Their love story, along with their lack of any type of social stagnancy, may not be representative of all Craigslist users, but instead one layer of a varied user base.
For those without quite so much social nerve, who haven’t found social success in traditional areas like the workplace or in a neighborhood, building a social life is practically a part-time job. Searching through thousands of listings on Craigslist, screening them through email conversations and finding the courage to meet with them in person is something that many find is only worth the time if one is truly desperate.
Jerry*, for example, works as a tech writer in the Bay Area. He was painfully shy while attending Cal State Los Angeles, where he studied math and graduated without a single close friend with whom to keep in touch. He meets with people through Craigslist to tutor them in English, but the effort to get comfortable with this amount of socializing was enormous.
Jerry speaks with the clear enunciation of a person who is accustomed to meeting with foreigners. The slow cadence of his voice punctuates every syllable of “delightful,” an adjective he uses to describe everything from corned beef and cabbage, to his friend from Turkey. A cherubic smile is etched onto his face, revealing a crooked row of lower teeth.
“There’s a scale from one to five,” he said. “Sometimes you have a level five friend and decide they’re too controlling, so you make them a level four or three friend instead. Or you have a level three friend you bond with and you decide they’re level five. When you meet someone, you have no idea where they will fall on the scale.”
Jerry spent years trying to branch out through activities. He tried going to several churches, where he would attend small groups for the sole purpose of practicing his conversation skills.
He recalls his time at a church in San Mateo, where the community was very kind to him as he tried to make friends and feel less scared about meeting new people. Eventually, this process was simply too lengthy and exhausting, and Jerry found that Craigslist was easier.
In theory, Craigslist may be a remedy for loneliness, but in practice, isolation often stems from too many different places to be treated by a simple website. My inbox, which is overrun with emails from Craigslist users who are available to meet up or talk within a 24-hour period is evidence of that.
The tension lies between two extremes. Intense experiences of alienation and social anxiety combat a very real social hunger, a hunger that even those who have never taken to the internet to find a new best friend have likely felt at one time or another. A primordial longing for connection and a sense of belonging becomes modernized when something other than facial expressions mediates the interaction. Loneliness, a timeless human experience, is not overcome just by tapping away at a keyboard.
One reply, from a man named Frank*, begins with the subject line “just saying hi I guess.” He is willing to help me and tell me his stories about his time on Craigslist, but includes that he is “sitting outside of the public library in Monterey right now texting this email. So pathetic, I know.” The self-awareness that is present on Craigslist shows a frank portrait of social isolation that is more apparent than on other online platforms.
“Replying to craigslist posts is kind of a low for me,” Frank said. “I sent out a few, maybe someone out there will respond but I doubt it. I don’t know.”
*Some sources’ last names have been omitted from the article to protect their identities.
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