Alone but Not Lonely

Forbes ASAP , November 29, 1998

Ann Landers recently published a letter from a woman pregnant with an anencephalic child, which means her baby will be born with only a brain stem and will die shortly after birth. Faced with the same sad circumstances, the overwhelming majority of women would opt for an abortion. But this woman is unusual: "I am proud to say in the U.S.A., a woman has the right to choose between pregnancy and abortion," she writes. "I choose to have my baby."

Along the bell curve of maternal experience, the letter writer is far off on the fringe: She is an oddity, a nonconformist, seemingly alone in the world. Her family and friends disapprove of her peculiar choice. She can't find an anencephaly support group in the entire state of Michigan--not surprising, since support groups require common experience, and hers is decidedly uncommon.

But being unusual is not the same as being alone. In a country whose population tops a quarter billion, 1% of 1% is still tens of thousands of people. The trick is to slip the bounds of local geography--to search for a group large enough to contain other unusual people.

That used to mean traveling to the largest city you could reach or maybe finding an obscure magazine or newsletter to subscribe to. Nowadays, it means searching the Internet. This woman did just that. Through the Net, she found other mothers of anencephalic infants who could offer comfort and advice. She also got in touch with support groups for mothers who had lost children. "The Internet," she writes, "has been a godsend."

It is striking enough to find Ann Landers publishing a letter in praise of the Internet. She and her audience are on no one's cutting edge. The letter is a sign of how thoroughly the Net has become a part of everyday life, how fully its power has been absorbed into our culture.

But what is really interesting about the letter is the writer's underlying message: The Internet means you don't have to be alone -- no matter how unusual you seem to be. On the Internet, people on the tails of the bell curve can find one another.

Every aspect of human identity, from size, shape, and color to sexual proclivities and intellectual gifts, comes in a wide range. Most of us cluster somewhere in the middle of most statistical distributions. But there are lots of bell curves, and pretty much everyone is on a tail of at least one of them. We may collect strange memorabilia or read esoteric books, hold unusual religious beliefs or wear odd-sized shoes, suffer rare diseases or enjoy obscure movies. Our distinguishing trait may be good or evil, important or trivial, transitory or permanent.

Having spent a century discovering the middle of the bell curve -- the mass market, the mass media -- we are only now realizing that this "mass," by its very massiveness, guarantees amazing variety. By lowering transaction costs, the Net makes it easier for businesses to serve the entire distribution rather than just the middle. It can offer every book in print, for instance.

By giving unsual people an easy way to find one another, the Internet has also enabled them to pool rare talents, resources, and voices, then push their case into public consciousness. The response, in many cases, is a kind of hysteria. Media gatekeepers yearn for the good old days of a "common culture," as defined by three TV networks and near-monopoly newspapers -- a culture in which no one could see the outliers. The Internet, we're told, is a place of scary hate groups, strange religions, bizarre sex, and way too little editing.

But far more significant is the happiness engendered by a medium that is sociable even when it is merely supplying passive information. On the Net, the bell curve reclaims its tails. The uncommon is as accessible as the common. The very fragmentation of the Internet allows us to find ourselves in other people--and to know that we are not alone.