Alone Together: Sarah Rabia, Co-Founder of Backslash

The scientific definition of loneliness is “a feeling of distress produced by the perception that one’s social needs are not being met.”

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Sarah Rabia
Global Strategy Director and Co-Founder Backslash
 


First, why did you decide to write a paper on Soloism? Was there a particular event or person that inspired you?

This year, we identified an interesting cultural tension between loneliness and socialization both reaching a peak at the same time. We’ve never been more socially connected, yet we’re lonelier than ever. We have an average of 500 social media friends, but consider only 5 of them “true and close” real-life friendships, a study we came across found. Influencers have been commoditized to the point of parody (think how much we all enjoyed mocking Fyre Fest), whilst Solitude is quietly becoming the New Luxury. So, we set out to explore the changing the nature of both being alone and being together today. And to translate what it means for business. In typical Backslash style, through a mini documentary, plus infographic and strategic essay that tells brands and marketers how they can actually action it. One particular cultural sign of Soloism that inspired us, was when the British government recently appointed the first ever ‘Minister of Loneliness’, elevating the issue of loneliness to national health policy, which became worldwide news. 

 

The "loneliness crisis” is real and there are statistics to prove it. When did you start seeing the trend and how did you come across it?

Soloism is one of our original ‘Edges’ — cultural shifts and cultural values  — that we coined when we launched Backslash 3 years ago. We’ve been monitoring Soloism since 2017. Everyday, Backslash makes original content reporting on how culture is changing and translates what it means for business. We have a global network of over 250 Spotters, cultural specialists within TBWA, who work on brands and with our hybrid editorial team, reporting on what’s happening in their city, category or cultural passion point. We curate and codify all our findings through the lens of over 50 Edges – Soloism, Sustainability Gangs, to my current obsession, Zero Out (it’s all about absence). So we’re constantly building and evolving a strategic cultural picture of the world. Enabling TBWA and our clients to keep up with culture, anticipate what’s next, and respond in meaningful and profitable ways. This is how we have developed our understanding of Soloism through time, geography and strategic storytelling. 

How do you find an Edge? My personal style and what I try to teach the Backslash team and our Spotters, is to look for a pattern of anomalies. It’s part journalism, trend forecasting and strategy. Some of the early signs of Soloism we identified came from data.

Data is a crucial part of how Backslash operates. It triggers our thinking, substantiates our work, and gives clients confidence to act. Humans have traditionally existed in social structures – the 2.4 family, the village of old. Now we’re facing a future of single-households—they’re the fastest-growing type globally according to Euromonitor data.

We also noticed that attitudes to being single are changing.

From millennials delaying marriage, to language like “single-positive” entering the lexicon, which we spotted just this year. To new businesses emerging such as ‘Onward’, a concierge service that helps people navigate the financial, emotional and practical fall-out of breaking up and becoming single again. Think rehousing to teaching resilience. We made a short Backslash film about this enterprise we found it so interesting. CEO Lindsay Meck wants to reframe break-ups from a tragic end to the beginning of a rich period of autonomy and self-love. She gave us this powerful and forboding quote: “I don’t think we’ve given people permission to have a moment where their primary relationship is with themselves.”

We identified behavioural changes. Things we used to do together, we are now doing alone.

Record numbers of people globally are making empowered choices to live, work, dine, entertain, vacation and parent—solo. (See Backslash’s essay for examples). Being alone is now reality for many people. Soloism represents a permanently more single way of life emerging worldwide that we need to adapt to and create for. The new currency of being solo disrupts the stories we tell ourselves about being alone and being together, and the traditional, family model of doing business we still tend to operate in.

 

What is the difference between being alone and lonely? Why do people confuse the two?

The scientific definition of loneliness is “a feeling of distress produced by the perception that one’s social needs are not being met.” In Western culture, we automatically equate being alone with being lonely. We’ve created a narrative starting from childhood that being alone is sad, something to avoid, and life is all about our relationships with others. But the need to be alone and to engage with others are both essential to human happiness and survival, psychologists say. Social media has made us more uncomfortable being alone and feeling socially restless and unsatiated. And therefore more susceptible to the perception we are lonely. As psychologist Melissa Sporn has said, "Online activities hits us twice, once as a distraction and/or substitution for real social interaction and then again as a representation via social media of all the things we aren't doing and should be engaged in, thus leaving us feeling lonely and FOMO." In other words, we can’t just be. We feel compelled to constantly do. Our fear of being alone today is really a fear of boredom. Soloism is a response, even a solution, to a hyper-stimulated, over-friended, burned-out generation that quietly desires to just be, but doesn’t quite know how.

 

The rise of remote working has been growing within modern communities. How does that affect the quality and productivity of work for individuals? Which industries tend to incorporate this new model into their culture? With an increase of online services like RentAFriend and Meetup, it’s become easier to meet people. However, your research shows that we feel more lonely than ever. Why? 

There’s such a lag between the effectiveness data on remote working and what I think we all instinctively know to be true – some alone time to focus, reflect, be creative, even be positively idle is good for us and good business vs meeting culture, distractions, travel time, and the productivity killer: email, and what companies and human teams actually offer in theory and support in practice.

Unfortunately, I think there’s still a lot of distrust towards remote working. That if you’re not in the office, you’re not really working. And a presenteeism and working all hours inefficiency that persists, particularly in our industry of all-night pitches and client-supplier relationships.

I don’t think we have set remote working up for success in most cases with the education, training and support to adapt successfully to it. Communication, management, and clear deadlines, deliverables and objectives become even more crucial. And new kinds of workspaces. Where we can be alone, and be together, flexibly. Not just with our colleagues but with others who could inspire us.

Advertising lags behind other industries when it comes to remote working, sadly. There are various studies on this but one I found showed these were the top remote-friendly industries:

medical and health

computer and IT

education and training

customer service

accounting and finance

travel and hospitality

sales

And companies in 2019 supporting remote working here.

This is a great Stanford 2-year study on the superior productivity benefits of remote working.

I’d love to see advertising take the lead on empowering people to work in the way that makes them most creative and entrepreneurial. Remote working and beyond.

In an increasingly automated world, we need to nurture and value the humanity and mystery of great creativity. (Listen to Leonard Cohen for more on this subject). 

Solo Travel is big these days. People are seeking for “me-time”. What are some major differences traveling alone versus with companions?

There are multiple benefits to Solo Travel various studies show.

Freedom.

Not having to compromise.

Quality time with yourself.

Making friends. (Yes, being alone actually makes you better socially).

Wellness.

Solo Travel is most popular with women and millennials. And those who are in relationships, the data shows.

Which suggests that Solo Travel is really about temporary or flexible aloneness.

And this is where the business opportunity lies.

‘Socialise Solo’ we call it.

We think companies have the opportunity to provide a range of flexible opportunities for solo customers to connect with others on their own terms and build the social benefits of safety, cost and support into going it alone.

How do we maintain a healthy balance between being alone and being together? 

Great question. I don’t think we have achieved it as a Western culture yet. (I certainly haven’t as a working mum of 2 answering your questions late on a red eye flight!).

What Backslash has learned:

Nurture fewer, deeper, real-life, human connections vs an unmanageable number of online connections.

This is good advice to individuals and brands alike.

No one can maintain 500 genuine friendships. Let alone the millions Kim Kardashian et al ‘has’. They’re no longer friendships. They’re just numbers. And the relationship is better categorized as voyeurism. Usually one-sided to the person who posts more aesthetic avocado on toast/has better abs/not me.

As part of our Soloism documentary, we consulted Cat Moore, Director of Belonging at the University of Southern California, on where companionship is going. She said: “I see companionship moving in a couple of different directions. It’s both getting really deep with a normalized number of people that we can actually stay in contact with. Whilst there’s also a desire to break out of our echo chambers and understand each other’s differences. I think it’s healthiest when we have lots of different kinds of connections.” I saw a great TED talk about the secret to longevity. Backed up by numerous studies. But in short, just look at the Greeks and Italians, they’ve got it right.

It’s not the gym.

Or a really expensive Estee Lauder cream.

Or even good health.

It comes down to the quality of your social connections.

(Couple of links if it helps:

https://www.mindful.org/why-relationships-are-the-key-to-longevity/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/strengthen-relationships-for-longer-healthier-life)

Break your echo chamber.

Brands have helped to create echo chambers. They also have the opportunity and arguably responsibility, to help break them. The biggest challenge facing businesses and governments in bringing people together is not connecting like-minded individuals, but diverse, often polarized groups in respectful, collaborative spaces. Brands that seek to be today’s icons for unity and diversity need to go to the difficult areas.

Embrace aloneness.

Think of it as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Like you would exercise or eating vegetables. Good in moderation. Eventually, we could see alone time shifting from luxury (what we see emerging right now) to hygiene (longer-term future). Like brushing your teeth. A daily ritual. Commercialisation will help popularise and democratize it. There is a meaningful role for brands to be played here.

I think anonymity is so under-rated.

The popstar/hit-writer Sia is a great example of how it can be pop culture cool. Phoebe Philo said it was the chicest thing to be ungoogleable.

Read the original report on Medium and Quartz