26/09/2011 12:52 BST | Updated 23/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Eliminating Loneliness

Eliminating loneliness is a lofty goal. And yet it's one that should theoretically be within our grasp. I was really interested to read that Sean Parker was working on a new start-up with just that goal in mind.

Eliminating loneliness is a lofty goal. And yet it's one that should theoretically be within our grasp. I was really interested to read that Sean Parker - you might know him better as 'that guy who Justin Timberlake played in The Social Network - was working on a new startup with just that goal in mind.

Loneliness and depression are two of the most serious issues facing the wider public today. According to the WHO, depression is one of the most serious issues in public health today. The table below shows just how serious an issue this is - by 2030, depressive disorders will be the biggest health burden on society both economically and sociologically.


I've been thinking about how new tools and various ideas could help to eliminate loneliness for quite a while now. My granny died last year, and in a conversation with my grandad over Christmas, he mentioned how lonely he'd been. This is a man for whom such an admission would not come easily, and he is by no means alone in feeling this way.

That's why I was so interested to read about Parker's new venture. People have been looking at this area for years - Jane McGonigal, the well-known games designer and author was one of the creators of Bounce back in 2006. This was a simple game which connected younger people with 'senior experience agents' who were residents of an old folks home in San Jose. The game required the participants to have a ten minute phone call where they would discuss various topics and try to find common ground or shared experiences. It worked. Almost everyone who took part once made another call. The 'senior experience agents' all reported higher moods after the calls. Simple. But effective.

I suspect what Airtime is looking at is not just this particular age group - though I'd be surprised if this wasn't part of the plan. I remember thinking when Chatroulette came out that, with a little work, it could be an amazing way to connect people and alleviate some of the burden of loneliness. Obviously it's well documented issues with dodgy content might have caused some issues, but with some level of moderation and potentially a private, paid for area to discourage trolls and (let's face it) wankers, it had real potential.

Imagine a service where you paid a certain amount each month to connect someone you care about with people who have similar interests. Think about the amount of mental stimulation they'd get from just having someone to have conversations with or even just someone 'in the room' with them - almost like ambient skyping. I'm sure some people would look at that as a way of assuaging guilt for perhaps not calling or spending enough time with that person yourself - and perhaps they'd have a point, but it would still be a good thing. The benefits that something like this would bring to people who feel isolated or lonely would be immense. There are endless ways that this could spread out - taking in ideas like Bounce and others to add elements of gaming and interactivity to it. It might sound over the top to some people, but I'd be willing to bet that the long-term benefits it would bring to people would be worth any amount of negative press around how 'eliminating loneliness' is too lofty a goal.