Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been conducting a little observational study on Chicago’s “L” trains. I wanted to know what, exactly, people do on the trains, because they’re certainly not talking to me.

But seriously, I wanted to measure what passengers are doing to maintain their aloneness in this very public space. Especially in a time when some research — and a lot of popular opinion (which is not to be trusted) — suggests technology is making us antisocial, this was a simple test to see just how much we keep to ourselves in a place that might otherwise behoove social behavior.

What I did:

Because this lay study began without any planning — I simply found myself counting people with their cell phones out one day — it’s pretty incomplete. I divided people into three categories: 1) people using their cell phones, 2) people reading and 3) people doing neither of these things. If I were to do it again, I’d also track 4) people sleeping and 5) people actually talking to others.

The whole study took place over the course of 13 train rides, all on the Red or Brown Lines. I only counted adolescents and older (because most babies aren’t cell users or bookworms), and I took no samples after midnight. Most of the data comes from late morning and mid-afternoon trains. Also, I tried to count accurately and quickly, to account for people who got on and off their phones or put their books away mid-ride.

What I found:

The 13 counts added up to 340 people in total. All told, 48 percent of people were using their cell phones for calling, gaming or listening to music, and 8 percent were reading books, newspapers or Kindles. One man was on his laptop, I guess because he really wanted to get mugged. That means 44 percent of passengers were chatting, sleeping or doing nothing.

Interestingly, two of my rides were in Chicago’s south side, and these rides had dramatically fewer people using their phones — in fact, they were the lowest percentages of all the samples — 26 percent on one ride, 27 percent on the other. Of course, two rides is too small a sample to draw any conclusions, and I’m not sure what it would suggest anyway, but I wonder if it correlates with economics in the area (generally, the south side is poorer than other parts of the city).

What it might mean:

According to a recent Time magazine study, 20 percent of Americans check their phones at least every 10 minutes. Sixty-eight percent take their phones to bed with them. And 36 percent say they “almost always” use their phones on public transportation. My experiment on the CTA suggests the numbers are even higher, at least on the paths I tread.

Some possible conclusions:

1. We really are “alone together.” The majority of us engage in solo activities even in situations where we’re surrounded by people. This confirms one of my earlier studies, suggesting that even in the most public places, we prefer to stay in our own little bubbles. What’s more, even of the 44 percent of people who, like me, were not absorbed in our phones or books, very few people actually talk to others, and they certainly don’t talk to strangers.

2. People prefer reading texts to reading books. This isn’t particularly surprising, but I still find it a bit striking that five times as many people were on their phones as were reading books or newspapers. Of the folks who were reading — and I didn’t track this, so I can’t be positive — I’d say most were reading newspapers or the RedEye tabloid, as opposed to books. Others appeared to be studying. Perhaps it’s just not easy or conducive to good story-telling to try long-form fiction on a short train ride.

3. Using a cell phone or reading doesn’t necessarily mean people were antisocial. Obviously, the people texting or talking on their phones were being social through the ether, though they were mostly oblivious to others on the train. Also, on a few occasions, people were sharing earbuds or chatting while playing Candy Crush. Even the people who were reading would sometimes look up from the page and say something to a friend or, more rarely, a stranger. So, perhaps we are not entirely antisocial; we’ve simply come to view social behavior as appropriate for multi-tasking. We’re not fully engaged in conversations. Part of us is listening, part of us is reading, part of us is gaming and part of us is trying desperately to not miss our stop.

Posted by Griffin Paul Jackson

One Comment

  1. Very true. It’s ironic that we have all these tools designed to be more connected, but yet feel more lonely than ever before. I usually read on the El, so I’m not any better, I’ve noticed that the group that seems most likely to want an in-depth conversation with me is men and women 60+ (although that’s certainly not always the case), a group that didn’t have social media and texting most of their life. Maybe we’re not better off socially after all.


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