Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

How Facebook Saved Us from Suburbia

Research suggests social networks remedy the isolation of modern life.

  • May 17, 2012

In 2009, the Pew Internet Trust published a survey worth resurfacing for what it says about the significance of Facebook. The study was inspired by earlier research that “argued that since 1985 Americans have become more socially isolated, the size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased.”

Photo: Andrew Braithwaite

In particular, the study found that Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and from voluntary associations. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears suggest that new technologies, such as the internet and mobile phone, may play a role in advancing this trend.

If you read through all the results from Pew’s survey, you’ll discover two surprising things:

1. “Use of newer information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the internet and mobile phones, is not the social change responsible for the restructuring of Americans’ core networks. We found that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.”

2. However, Americans on the whole are more isolated than they were in 1985. “The average size of Americans’ core discussion networks has declined since 1985; the mean network size has dropped by about one-third or a loss of approximately one confidant.” In addition, “The diversity of core discussion networks has markedly declined; discussion networks are less likely to contain non-kin – that is, people who are not relatives by blood or marriage.”

In other words, the technologies that have isolated Americans are anything but informational. It’s not hard to imagine what they are, as there’s been plenty of research on the subject. These technologies are the automobile, sprawl and suburbia. We know that neighborhoods that aren’t walkable decrease the number of our social connections and increase obesity. We know that commutes make us miserable, and that time spent in an automobile affects everything from our home life to our level of anxiety and depression.

Indirect evidence for this can be found in the demonstrated preferences of Millenials, who are opting for cell phones over automobiles and who would rather live in the urban cores their parents abandoned, ride mass transit and in all other respects physically re-integrate themselves with the sort of village life that is possible only in the most walkable portions of cities.

Meanwhile, it’s worth contemplating one of the primary factors that drove Facebook’s adoption by (soon) 1 billion people: Loneliness. Americans have less support than ever – one in eight in the Pew survey reported having no “discussion confidants.”

It’s clear that for all our fears about the ability of our mobile devices to isolate us in public, the primary way they’re actually used is for connection.

On average, the size of core discussion networks is 12% larger amongst cell phone users, 9% larger for those who share photos online, and 9% bigger for those who use instant messaging.

The Pew study is full of factoids like this one. Bloggers are more likely to have confidants of a different race, people who upload photos online are 61% more likely to have a confidant with different political views, etc.

Humans are a social species, and we will use any outlet we’re offered to connect with one another. Cultural shifts, the flight to the suburbs and our short-sighted investments in fossil-fuel based infrastructure put up barriers to social connections that we are only now coming to grips with. For all the hand-wringing over how we connect online, it’s clear that the one unalloyed good social networks have accomplished is a net increase in our interdependence.

The question worth asking is: How did it occur to a generation raised in the suburbs that they could have the kind of civic life that can only be achieved in people-centered neighborhoods? Isn’t it possible that in the 21st century we expect more of our physical environments because that kind of connectedness is what we’ve come to expect from our our virtual ones?

Hear more from Facebook at EmTech 2016.
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