Facebook as a replacement for the community formerly found in church and Little League

In a recent speech in Chicago, Zuckerberg explained his vision for Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook groups to play an important role that community groups like churches and Little League teams used to perform: Bringing communities together…

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users who’ve built large community-support groups on the site. “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”

He added, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”…

“A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

One of the best things about the Internet and social media is that it allows people with specific interests to find each other in ways that can be difficult offline. Yet, it is less clear that these online groups can be full substitutes for offline social groups. A few specific questions about this based on what Zuckerberg said:

  1. It can be interesting to ask about the purpose of religious groups: how much are they about religious activities versus social activities? The answer might depend on whether one is a person of faith or not or an insider or outsider to such groups.
  2. Religious groups are unique in that they are often focused on a transcendent being. Other social groups often have an external focus but not quite the same kind. Is a Facebook group focusing on the same kind of thing as a religious group?
  3. Zuckerberg is hinting at the need humans have for social and spiritual connection. Can such spiritual connection be filled in an online setting in the ways that it occurs offline?
  4. Zuckerberg is right about the decline in civic membership but can this trend be easily reversed? For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone points to a whole host of factors (from suburbanization to television watching) that led to this. If people are willing to join online communities in large numbers, is this because these communities offer different requirements than civic groups?

A reminder: this is not a new development. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been clear from early on about his goals to use the platform to bring people together. See an earlier post about this here.

Gov’t report on declining civic life

A new government report summarizes a number of findings regarding the declining sociability of Americans:

What Lee is concerned about documenting is that this middle layer is thinning. Fewer Americans are getting married or living in families. We are going to religious services less often, and are less likely to consider ourselves members of a religious organization. We’re spending less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers, too. Voting rates have declined, and we’ve grown less likely to pay attention to news about government. We trust one another less: The percentage of Americans who thought most people could be trusted fell to 31 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 1972, the report says, citing the General Social Survey.

There are some exceptions to the pattern. Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans. We are building less “social capital.”

Conservatives have historically been especially concerned about associational life, although they used different terms in prior eras, such as “civil society” and “mediating institutions.” These organizations both ensured the survival of worthwhile traditions and protected the individual from the state. It was no accident, conservatives thought, that totalitarian states ruthlessly suppressed all independent groups, even apolitical ones. And conservatives worried that even benign welfare states tended to displace social groups by taking over their functions.

Scott Winship, research director for Lee’s project, emphasizes a less ideological explanation for the trends the report describes: “We used to need our neighbors and our fellow church congregants more, for instance, for various forms of assistance, such as child care or financial help. Today we are better able to purchase child care on the market and to access credit and insurance. Freed from these materialist needs, we have narrowed our social circles to family and friends, with whom social interaction is easier — especially thanks to the Internet — and more natural. But the wider social connections filled other, non-materialist needs too, and those have been casualties of rising affluence.” The collateral damage, for many people, has been a loss of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

This is not news to sociologists and others who have viewed the trends for a few decades now. For example, see Bowling Alone. But, perhaps it is more interesting now to consider what kind of society we will have if more Americans are not involved with social groups, tend to retreat to private spaces, and don’t trust institutions. I’m sure some would say we are already at this point with the Trump era at hand but it could both get worse as well as possibly settle into some sort of agreement to leave each other alone.

Durkheim, modern American hyper-individualism, and moral consensus today

One commentator links Durkheim’s ideas about suicide, anomie, and society to individualism in America today:

Here in the West, we take individualism and freedom to be foundational to the good life. But Durkheim’s research revealed a more complicated picture. He concluded that people kill themselves more when they are alienated from their communities and community institutions. “Men don’t thrive as rugged individualists making their mark on the frontier,” the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out recently: “In fact, men seem to be much more likely to end up killing themselves if they don’t have traditional support systems.” Places where individualism is the supreme value; places where people are excessively self-sufficient; places that look a lot like twenty-first century America—individuals don’t flourish in these environments, but suicide does.

Durkheim’s work emphasizes the importance of community life. Without the constraints, traditions, and shared values of the community, society enters into a state of what Durkheim called anomie, or normlessness. This freedom, far from leading to happiness, often leads to depression and social decay (as the “twerking” Miley Cyrus perfectly exemplified recently at the Video Music Awards). Durkheim thought that the constraints—if not excessive—imposed on individuals by the community ultimately helped people lead good lives.

But we live in a culture where communitarian ideals, like duty and tradition, are withering away. Even conservatives, who should be the natural allies of these virtues, have in large part become the champions of an individualism that seems to value freedom, the market, and material prosperity above all else, leaving little room for the more traditional values that well known thinkers like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver cherished. “Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history,” wrote Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), “but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. . . . If he is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial.”…

Let’s return to the Google Books Ngram Viewer to illustrate the point. When Twenge, Campbell, and their colleague Brittany Gentile analyzed books published between 1960 and 2008, they found that the use of words and phrases like “unique,” “personalize,” “self,” “all about me,” “I am special,” and “I’m the best” significantly increased over time. Of course, it is not just in our books where this narcissism appears. It is also throughout the popular culture, not least in pop music. When a group of researchers, including Campbell and Twenge, looked at the lyrics of the most popular songs from 1980 to 2007, they found that the songs became much more narcissistic and self-centered over time. In the past three decades, the researchers write, the “use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased.”

Durkheim was very much about social cohesion, moral consensus, and the interdependence of individuals in modern society. Individuals may think that they are self-sufficient or able to do a lot on their own but much of their lives are built on the efforts of others.

Another aspect of this might be the declining participation of Americans in civic groups as outlined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. This doesn’t mean Americans are completely withdrawn but it does suggest they might be more wary of collectives or only choose to participate when it suits them. This is how you can view online social networks like Facebook and Twitter: they enable social interaction but it is at the demand of individual users as they get to decide when and how they interact.

You could flip this this around and ask a different question: what are Americans all committed to? Where do we still have moral consensus? Perhaps in declining trust in institutions. Perhaps in celebrating Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps the idea that homeownership is a key part of the American Dream. Perhaps in religiosity (even with the rise of the “religious nones,” some of whom still believe in God). Here are a few other things 90% of Americans can agree on:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

It is not that we don’t have zero social cohesion these days. The argument here could be two-fold: (1) social cohesion has declined from the past; (2) social cohesion today has changed – it might be more “alone together” than everything else where we can be around others at times and share some common values but we generally want to follow our own paths, as long as they aren’t impeded too much by the paths of others.

Sociologist on how urban sprawl contributes to stress, limits community

A sociologist argues urban sprawl boosts stress levels and inhibits social interactions:

Urban sprawl in Alberta’s two largest cities could be contributing to high stress levels and lack of community ties reported in the province, a sociologist suggests.

Statistics Canada’s age-standardized figures show nearly a quarter of Alberta’s population aged 15 and older perceive most days as “quite a bit or extremely stressful.”

Out of the 10 Canadian provinces, Alberta was second-highest for perceived life stress — second only to Quebec — in 2011.

It also had the second-lowest percentage of the population aged 12 and over who reported their sense of belonging to the local community as being “very strong or somewhat strong” — higher only than Quebec.

Tim Haney, an urban sociology expert and assistant professor at Mount Royal University, said the way Calgary, and more recently Edmonton, are growing outward affects residents’ quality of life.

Difficulty or inconvenience commuting from place to place can impact a person’s relationships and ability develop some sense of community, he said.

This sounds like possible correlations – we would have to see more specific data before making any conclusions. But, these arguments are related to earlier theories and findings. Some of the early sociologists, people like Georg Simmel, worried about how individuals would survive in cities. Simmel didn’t think much about suburbs but perhaps his ideas about “nervous stimulation” in cities could be adapted to suburban settings where there is less regular interaction with strangers but still a lot of movement (particularly driving) amidst populated areas. Also, Robert Putnam argued in Bowling Alone that sprawl contributed to a decline in community life and civic engagement.

If all of this is true and life in sprawl does include a stress penalty, this is an interesting trade-off for Americans: buy a bigger and cheaper house within the sprawl and participate in the suburban good life but have more stress than living elsewhere.

Exploring the Gen Y home

The International Builders Show that recently concluded featured a Gen Y home. Here is what it involved:

The so-called Gen Y House, one of a trio of Builder Concept Homes constructed for the show, also departs from housing’s (and the trade show’s) long-running obsession with the baby boom generation.

Its 2,163 square feet marry indoors with outdoors: One all-glass exterior wall literally disappears, folding away to open the home to the patio and pool. The party-hearty vibe is hard to miss…

It’s a wide-open floor plan that emphasizes flexibility and gives a nod to the fact that, being in Florida, relatives and friends are likely to show up to visit: There’s a separate studio apartment with kitchenette just off the front courtyard. That courtyard provides a roomy alternative to the traditional notion of a front yard. Out back, there’s that pool and hot tub; a separate entrance from the master bedroom leading to the pool practically screams “midnight swim.”

The architect said that homes have to have contemporary styling for this age group.

One architect quoted in the story suggests that Generation Y “can lead out of this [down housing] market.” Thus, it sounds like builders and others think there is a lot of money in designing homes for the younger generation.

Four thoughts about this home:

1. Does it work outside of Florida? This home seems to take advantage of its setting but it might look a little different for a Gen Yer in Minneapolis.

2. This goes along with a larger industry theme that smaller might be better today. Again, however, this home is not short on features and has a price tag of $300,000. This is not exactly affordable housing though it appears that people want to make clear it is not a McMansion.

3. Would this home stand the test of time? What I mean here is whether this home would look dated in 15 to 20 years or if it is so geared to a particular group that it would have little appeal for the larger market. Styles and accoutrements do change over time but I assume builders don’t want to limit who would purchase these homes.

4. This home seems to emphasize fun and entertainment. Would these homes encourage sociability in the long run or reinforce a lack of attachments to civil society a la Bowling Alone?

First million dollar endorsement deal for an athlete went to a bowler

One can learn some interesting facts from random moments in sports talk radio: the first athlete to earn a $1 million endorsement deal was a bowler in 1964.

In 1964, bowling legend Don Carter managed the unthinkable for a bowler — or any athlete for that matter — when he landed a $1 million endorsement deal with bowling manufacturer Ebonite. He was the first bowler to hit the magic mark, and far outpaced his contemporaries throughout the sports world.

Just four years before Carter’s landmark agreement, the best that professional golfer Arnold Palmer’s manager could muster for his client was a $5,000 per year “global” deal with Wilson sports. In 1968, Super Bowl quarterback Joe Namath famously shaved off his moustache with a Schick razor for a mere $10,000. Race car driver Richard Petty would become the first million-dollar driver, but not until 1971.

Carter’s Ebonite deal launched the widely popular Don Carter Gyro-Balanced ball, but his own lucrative endorsement career was already on track. As early as 1959, Carter was grossing more than $100,000 a year through tournaments, exhibitions, TV matches, investments and endorsements for such products as Miller Lite, Viceroys, Palmolive Rapid Shave and Wonder Bread.

Carter dominated the sport:

He also did something that no one in baseball, football or golf ever did. He became the first athlete in American sports history to sign a $1 million marketing endorsement contract, with bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite in 1964.

“It is impossible to put into words what Don Carter meant to the PBA and the sport of bowling,” PBA Commissioner Tom Clark said. “He was a pioneer, a champion and will never be forgotten.”

The 6-foot, 200-pound Carter bowled five 800 series, 13 perfect games and six 299s in sanctioned play. He practically held a monopoly on bowling honors. He was voted Bowler of the Year six times (1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962).

While bowling may not be a very high-profile sport these days, hearing this reminded me of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Not too long ago, many Americans bowled regularly and Putnam argues this is illustrative of a strong civic and social sphere where neighbors and strangers interacted more regularly.

It is interesting to think about why Carter was able to snag such a large deal. Perhaps it is because millions of Americans thought being a good or decent bowler was attainable, perhaps even at their regular leagues. It is a little harder these days when you see such athletes performing in the major sports, in college, and even at the high school level. Anyone can bowl and Carter apparently had an interesting style:

A founding member and the first president of the Professional Bowlers Association, Carter was a powerhouse on the lanes at 6 feet 1 inch tall and 195 pounds…

He bowled with a distinctively ungainly right-handed style, eschewing a traditional backswing, bending his elbow and knee and pulling the ball back around his stomach, then pushing it forward.

“I think there were probably 10 million bowlers who tried to emulate that,” said Bill Vint, a spokesman for the P.B.A. “I don’t think anyone did.”

I bet there is an interesting story in how bowling fell behind the major sports like football in endorsements and attention. Was bowling a gateway sport that was relatively easy to broadcast on television that helped open up things for other sports?

The beginnings of the word “individualism” in de Toqueville’s Democracy in America

Americans are often described as individualists. Where exactly did this term come from? It can be partly attributed to a famous work by French observer Alexis de Toqueville.

It is interesting to note that the word “individualist” wasn’t part of the vocabulary of the first colonists or even the revolutionaries. It is a 19th Century word, likely first used out of necessity by the translators of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — an almost sociological work based on the author’s visit to America during the 1830s.

On the matter of American individualism de Tocqueville wrote: “There are more and more people who… have gained enough wealth and understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their destiny is in their hands. … Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone and there is danger that he might be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

Importantly, de Tocqueville saw several social forces that worked against the isolation of individualism and the danger of being locked in solitary: the family, the church and a set of civic virtues fostered, he believed, by American mothers. Whether or not we agree with this particular formulation, we might agree on a more general point. In discussions of American individualism, it is important to treat it as part of a balanced pair — often, yoked in a tense arrangement with one side headed for individual isolation and the other toward full immersion in a community. As long as the forces are fairly equal, the arrangement stays centered…

Three hundred years later, Herbert Hoover coined the now famous phrase “rugged individualist.” But he, too, saw a natural constraining partner for his American creation — the right of others to exercise opportunities arising from their own individuality.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists a translation of de Toqueville’s work, Democracy in America, as the second use of the term “individualism.” I wonder if this is an accurate translation of de Toqueville – what exactly did he intend to say?

Just because the word came along in the 1830s doesn’t mean that Americans were not individualists prior to this use. At the same time, could we argue that Americans have increasingly adopted this label and tried to live up to it? As labeling theory might suggest, Americans have acted in accordance with expectations and perhaps this has even become easier because of the country’s burgeoning wealth and power after World War II.

But as this commentator suggests, the individualism is often limited by ever-present ties to the larger community. We complain about taxes but don’t want the services paid for by taxes to disappear. De Toqueville’s work is partly famous because he also talks about the propensity of Americans to volunteer for organizations, a zeal that surprises him. But then we have more recent works like Bowling Alone that suggest Americans have largely lost this zeal, withdrawing into more personal networks and generally retreating from public life. Are we at the individualistic end of the pendulum swing now and will we soon swing back to a middle ground?

Quick Review: In the Neighborhood

Earlier this year, various media outlets discussed a book where the adult author decides to ask his neighbors if he can sleep over. I recently read this book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community, One Sleepover at a Time by Peter Lovenheim, and have some thoughts about it.

1. First, a quick summary. Lovenheim, a journalist, lives on a wealthy street in a suburb of Rochester, New York. After a murder-suicide in the neighborhood, he realizes that he doesn’t know any of his neighbors, even after growing up on the street and having moved back to the street as an adult. To rectify this, he decides to ask his neighbors if he can sleep over in order to build relationships.

2. There is a lot of pop sociology in this book as it includes short discussions about suburban houses and whether they encourage neighborliness, the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, and social capital. These short segments give his actions some context but they do not go into much depth.

3. Even with his persistent actions, he still doesn’t build strong relationships with too many people. A number of neighbors turn him down including one guy who keeps repeating that he “is a very private person.” Overall, he seems to build relationships with people who tend to agree with him that it is unfortunate that people don’t know their neighbors.

4. Two factors lead me to wonder whether the outcomes of the book could be found elsewhere:

a. Lovenheim admits briefly that he might have been motivated to do this because of a recent separation with his wife. Would he act differently if still married? Would people react to him differently if he were married or seen as a family man compared to being a single father?

b. He lives on a wealthy street: his neighbors tend to be doctors, lawyers, and motivated professionals. A constant theme is that people on the street don’t want their privacy to be invaded; would other places be more open or friendly?

5. In the end, this is another book that laments the loss of community in America. The difference here is the author attempts to do something (however small) about it and his life is enriched. Towards the end of the book, Lovenheim tries to add some stories of others reaching out to their neighbors but this felt contrived compared to his personal narrative.

Overall, I would say this was an interesting, yet light, read. Those looking for large solutions to community life in America are likely to be disappointed but Lovenheim’s interactions with a variety of people in the neighborhood is entertaining.