Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Occupy Loneliness: A Sociological Phenomenon - Review of "Jeff, One Lonely Guy" by Jeff Ragsdale et al.

When I read Amazon's blurb about Jeff Ragsdale's new book, I knew I had to read it. The part of me that is a sociologist and a student of communication and networking hungered to understand what the buzz was all about.

Last fall, Jeff was in the dumps after a break-up with his girlfriend. Desperate for human contact, he posted an old-fashioned flyer on telephone poles throughout Manhattan - from 72nd St. down to Houston St. The flyer said simply:

"If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me (347) 469-3173. - Jeff, one lonely guy"

As I write this review, I feel as if I should have The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" playing in the background.

As soon as I read the text of the flyer on page 1 of the book, I decided to conduct an experiment; I called the number. I was not sure if Jeff was still accepting calls since the message had gone viral on the Internet and tens of thousands of individuals from all over the world had texted and called him. Two days later, while I was in a dinner meeting, Jeff returned my call. We chatted briefly and set up an appointment for a proper conversation a few days hence. That follow-up conversation has just taken place.

I learned that in the past six months, the number of calls and text messages that Jeff has received now exceeds 65,000! Surely, he has touched a raw nerve of a malaise of interpersonal disconnection of pandemic proportions.

In the book's introduction, co-author David Shields offered some insightful comments about Jeff: "I think of Jeff and the people portrayed here in the same way. This is Dostoevsky's 'Notes from the Underground' told by and for and in the digital age. This is the authentic sound of human beings at ground level, often in economic freefall, trying to connect in whatever way possible, below the radar of Big Media. This is Occupy Loneliness. The is America singing - singing a dirge. (Page vii)

As I anticipated my follow-up conversation with Jeff, I made my way through the book's transcript of some of his most poignant exchanges with fellow lonely men and women. As I neared the book's finish, I was prepared to ask Jeff a question about how this experience of interacting with more than 65,000 individuals had changed his view of humanity - and his view of himself. And then I came across a partial answer on page 127:

"Hamlet says, 'I am with more offences at my beck tan I have thoughts to put them in. imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.' I'm heavily flawed. One positive feature I have, though, is a self-reflexive nature.. I know I've made many mistakes, but I do learn from them. I'm constantly charting what I did wrong - what I did right - and trying to improve. I'm a roving, sloshing workinprogress (sic)." (Page 127)

When Jeff and I spoke for the second time, I read that quotation to him and made the observation that this philosophy struck me as very close to the military mindset that many of my friend have of conducting an "After Action Review" following any significant encounter or action.

Jeff mentioned that he started this outreach with a bit of a cynical outlook and low expectations. "I thought perhaps I might hear from 20 people. So far, it has been more than 65,000, and out of that vast number, about 200 of the people have been amazing."

What does all of this mean, and how will Jeff move beyond the initial barrage of phone calls and tentative attempts and forming a human connection? He envisions somehow launching a movement along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous - a peer-to-peer phone network for lonely people to connect with one another.

I told Jeff that I could also envision a realty TV show that he would host, or a Broadway musical that would combine elements of RENT, Jerry Springer the Opera, Oliver and Annie. "Where Is Love?" "Maybe Far Away, or Maybe Real Near By."

It will be fascinating to see where all of this mishegoss may lead. Stay tuned.

I plan to meet with Jeff the next time I travel to NYC. I offered to connect him with a few individuals who may be willing to serve as advisors to help him think through how to launch the network that he dreams about.

I encourage you to visit Jeff's website, and read the recent article in the New York Park, The New Yorker, his interview with Fox-TV, the piece in Oprah's Blog, etc.

I would be interested in your thoughts and comments.




Danza Slap Dat Ass said...
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Josh Rizzo said...

Al, this was a great read - I thought of the AAR right away as well. I'm extremely interested in seeing where this thing goes - we all have a little bit of Jeff in us at times.

Bob Cavezza said...

Al, Great writeup - I haven't heard of Jeff before this post. His goal of creating a network reminds me of another entrepreneur I know in NYC. His name is Zachar Burt and he started a few years ago. Perhaps connecting the two would be mutually beneficial?