Why the study of social media and the study of suburbs goes together

Two days ago, I presented a talk titled “Screens, Social Media, and Spirituality: Technology and Religiosity Among Emerging Adults.” In this particular talk, I drew upon my work work with co-authors analyzing social media. While this is one of my research areas of interest, I am also a scholar of suburbs. How do these two areas go together?

To start, the sociological study of the Internet and social media has connections to the study of communities and places. Barry Wellman is a good example of a scholar who studied communities and then the Internet. Both social spheres have logics that connect people: communities tend to rely on geographic proximity while Internet and social media networks rely more on choosing connections and common interests. (There are other lenses sociologists could use to join the two topics: materiality – think smartphones and single-family homes; narratives about science and progress; consumption.)

Both social media and suburban areas rely on narratives of choice made by users or residents while both ave deeper forces pushing people toward those choices. In social media, people do not pick platforms at random nor are the platform’s development and popularity random. What people users connect to is not random; existing social ties matter as do factors like fame, influence, and power. Similarly, Americans may often argue they made it to the suburbs through their own efforts but decades of government policy as well as cultural ideology has privileged the suburban way of life.

One might argue that social media is relatively placeless. Users can communicate with any connected friend or follower from any place and at any time. Compared to social interaction bounded by proximity, technology offers unprecedented access without a need for a tie to a place (outside of a need for some sort of Internet connection). But, this placelessness is also a critique regularly leveled at American suburbs where the regularly repeating of features can make it appear all to be similar. See an example of this argument. (I tend to disagree as suburban communities can have very different characters, just as different social media platforms and interactions can feel different even if they all all fall into the same broad categories of social life.)

Finally, the profound implications for communities and broader society by both phenomena – particularly mass suburbanization after World War II and social media after the founding of Facebook plus the quick popularity of smartphones – are hard to ignore. It isn’t just that more Americans moved to suburbs; this had ripple effects on many places (including every major city), industries (think cars, fast food, big box stores, etc.), and government policy. It isn’t just that people now spend some time on social media; the shift to different kinds of relationships means we have to think afresh about how community works.

Communities, inertia, and change from a sociological point of view

After recently reading Market Cities, People Cities and hearing a talk by one of the authors plus having several conversations with people about how sociologists think about how communities and organizations develop and change, I wanted to outline how cities and suburbs change over time. Here is how I would describe it:

  1. A community or organization is founded. Relatively small in size at the start, it takes on characteristics and activities of its founder(s). These initial traits can have effects down the road but are not necessarily deterministic of where the community will end up. Inertia and founding energy carry the social collective along.
  2. Two major categories of social phenomena can lead to change. One option is outside social forces or pressure. Examples for communities could include broader shifts (such as new residents moving there from elsewhere, changes in government policies or funding, large-scale economic shifts, or changing cultural norms in the broader society) as well as more local changes (such as requests for new development, budget issues, a critical mass of new residents in the community, changes brought by local elections). A second option is internal decisions made to go a different direction (or reaffirm the existing inertia/path). These decisions are often a reaction to outside forces but they can also spring up from internal discussions and thinking. Examples of this could include requests for new developments, budget issues, and a critical mass of new residents.
  3. A period of inertia then follows until another major period of decision/reaction to outside forces takes place.
  4. The community or organization then goes on until it doesn’t.

To sum up: communities tend to follow a particular path of development and community life until something happens externally and/or internally that often allows space to have a discussion about a different vision. This “something happens” could be the result of external forces or internal forces or decisions. Emerson and Smiley rely more on steps toward developing a social movement while my own suburban work suggested “character moments” could lead to new paths. This collection of founding characteristics plus key moments then comprises the unique character of a community or organization that can differentiate it from an organization of community of the same broader kind.

Facebook’s goal: build community, help people find purpose

This story tracks Mark Zuckerberg’s language about community and the purpose of Facebook. There has been a recent change:

But when 2017 arrived, Zuckerberg immediately began talking about Facebook “building community.” In February, he wrote a massive post detailing his vision to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

We now know that sometime in late 2016, Mark Zuckerberg directed some new questions at his employees. The company had noticed that there was a special subset of Facebook users, about 100 million of them. These were people who had joined “meaningful communities” on the service, which he defined as groups that “quickly become the most important part of your social-network experience and an integral part of your real-world support structure.”..

This marks the first mention of “meaningful communities” from Mark Zuckerberg. In the past, he’d talked about “our” community, “safe” community, and the “global” community, of course. But this was different. Meaning is not as easy to measure as what people click on (or at least most people don’t think it is)…

But the route to a “sense of purpose for everyone is by building community.” This community would be global because “the great arc of human history bends toward people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.”

I could imagine several possible reactions to this new message:

  1. Cynicism. How can Facebook be trusted if they are a company and their primary goal is to make money? Community sounds good but but perhaps that is what is customers want right now.
  2. Hope. Facebook began in the minds of college students and now has billions of users. This has all happened very quickly and alongside a number of social media options. While traditional institutions (particularly those related to the nation state) seem to struggle in uniting people, Facebook and other options offer new opportunities.
  3. Indifference. Many will just continue to use Facebook without much thought of what the company is really doing or trying to figure out what they can really get out of Facebook and other platforms. They just like having connections that they did not used to have.

Given that the messages on connecting people and community has changed in the past, it will be interesting to see how they evolve in the future. In particular, if Zuckerberg wants to get more involved in politics, how will these ideas change?

Farmers markets nearly dead in 1971; exploding in number today

A study looking at what motivates shopping at a farmers market includes figures on the number of farmers markets over time:

Farming is back, long after Jane Pyle, in true Population Bomb thinking of 1971, said farmers markets were “doomed by a changing society” in an editorial for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were “populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse,” Pyle wrote.

Yet like Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, Pyle could not have been more wrong…The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014.

That is quite an increase. What is behind it?

“A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies,” states the study.

But that requires wealthy elites. Local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) are far more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher income levels.

Here is my interpretation of the findings: as farming has become an industry with large corporations and selling food products has become dominated by big box stores (Walmart now has about 25% market share among grocery stores), the farmers market gives those with the resources an opportunity to retain control of where their money goes. Americans tend to like local control and this gives grocery buyers the ability to see more directly where their money goes (directly to producers, closer to where the purchasers actually like).

Wealthier communities are also likely to see farmers markets as desirable economic contributors. The markets don’t require that much space – they can even put underutilized parking lots to use – and don’t create trouble in terms of pollution or noise. The markets can attract higher-income residents who will then associate the nicer shopping option with a higher quality community as well as possibly spend more money elsewhere in the community. As an illustration of this, look where the 150+ farmers markets in the Chicago region are located.

David Brooks: American cities and suburbs are better than they have ever been

David Brooks argues that despite pessimism and a lack of leadership, American communities are in good shape:

I’ve been living in and visiting New York for almost a half-century now. One thought occurs as I walk around these days: The city has never been better.

There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools. I suppose New York isn’t as artistically or intellectually rich as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but daily life is immeasurably better.

And when I think about the 15 or 20 largest American cities, the same thought applies. Compared with all past periods, American cities and suburbs are sweeter and more interesting places. Of course there are the problems of inequality and poverty that we all know about, but there hasn’t been a time in American history when so many global cultures percolated in the mainstream, when there was so much tolerance for diverse ethnicities, lifestyles and the complex directions of the heart, when there was so little tolerance for disorder, domestic violence and prejudice.

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Brooks isn’t the only person to make such a general suggestion about our world. For example, Stephen Pinker notes the reduction in violence and war in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Gregg Easterbrook wrote The Progress Paradox. Yet, Brooks is one of the few public figures who have applied these ideas to American cities and suburbs. The public perceptions about cities are usually pretty bad even as the nicer parts of these communities are perhaps nicer than they have ever been. Critics argue suburbs may look nice but are lacking in genuine community as well as diversity.

Perhaps this is one of those situations where Brooks may just be right but perceptions matter as well. As W. I. Thomas famously said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” The number of murders in big cities may be down over 50%, shopping districts are booming, numerous gleaming condo buildings are going up, and still the average person might be worried.

The difficulty in finding records of sundown laws

A sociologist discusses the difficulty in finding written records of sundown laws in Canadian communities:

He also looked at how the memory of slavery is being impacted, citing the difficulty in finding the existence of so-called “sundown” laws that required Blacks to be off the streets at night in many Ontario communities as recently as the 1960s.

There’s references to sundown laws existing, but Kitossa said, “what I find surprising is that the historians, themselves, are actually not providing the empirical evidence to say that we have this bylaw issue here or repealed on this date.”

While he can’t find any evidence of these laws on the books, he’s heard many anecdotal accounts from people about them.

“Whether the laws existed or not, people have these stories and so they believed it to be true,” he said. “So, belief constitutes its own reality.”

From a sociological point of view, Kitossa said this situation tells him “there’s a way that people talk about what to remember and what not to remember, and what to record and what not to record.”

It makes him think of the Japanese internment during the Second World War where the adults that were interned basically stopped talking about their experience.

On one hand, this could be cited as evidence that sundown laws were not as pervasive as important because they were never formalized. On the other hand, Kitossa echoes a famous sociological quote from W. I. Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Sundown laws don’t need to be officially proposed, debated, and written down in order to be put into action and enforced.

Indeed, this is what James Loewen found in his study Sundown Townswhich argues a majority of communities in the northern United States had such rules. Few communities had signs at the edge of town that displayed such rules and few had formal ordinances. Yet, community memories were strong about the presence of such rules as whites tried to limit the presence of blacks and other minorities.

One might even make the argument that these informal rules are more powerful than formal rules as they didn’t even need to be codified to be in effect.

Buy a South Dakota town for $399k

I haven’t seen one of these stories for a while so take note: you can purchase a small South Dakota town for $399,000.

The owner of Swett, pronounced sweat, is selling the roughly 6-acre  town that includes a tavern, a three bedroom house, three trailer homes and a former tire shop about 100 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Swett’s population peaked at 40 residents in the 1940s when it had a post office and grocery store, but now stands at two: owner Lance Benson and his wife, three if you count their dog.

Benson acquired Swett in 1998, later gave it up in a divorce settlement and then reacquired the town in 2012. He will toss in a 1990 Volvo semi-tractor now used for hauling trailers, according to a real estate listing by realtor Stacie Montgomery.

Benson, who owns a traveling concession stand, told the Rapid City Journal last week he wants to sell the town to focus on his business. He will keep the tiny prairie domain if no one wants to buy it within a year, he told the newspaper.

Not much of a town seeing that the Census doesn’t keep any facts on it and there isn’t much to see on Google Maps. But, it doesn’t have an interesting history in recent decades going from several dozen residents to part of a divorce settlement.

Perhaps we know this selling-a-city thing is going somewhere when a more substantial location goes up for sale. Imagine a community of 500 or 1,000 people is experiencing severe financial difficulties. In order to help make this up, the town tries to find a private owner or manager with a cash sum up front meant to help counter the debts. Or imagine Detroit decides to sell off a whole neighborhood to a private developer who makes some sort of deal to improve the community. I don’t even know if the first option is legal; can an incorporated community be sold to a private owner or corporation? I assume there are some guidelines in incorporation laws intended to protect community members…