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.

Will millennials kill McMansions?

Millennials get blamed for a lot of things and here is another possible area where their choices may have consequences: the selling and buying of McMansions.

The end of so-called “McMansions” has been predicted several times over the years, but those large, mass-produced houses that the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) favored as a status symbol kept coming back. Now, baby boomers are entering their 70s and 80s and many are looking to downsize, but they are finding it hard to offload these large homes, facing a paucity of buyers among the millennial generation (born 1982-2000), who are unable to pay the prices they want.

For anxious sellers, however, respite could be around the corner as mortgage interest rates ease, and the millennial generation becomes qualified for more and bigger loans, experts say…

A big problem for the McMansion market is the mismatch between where millennials prefer to live and where those large houses have been built. The younger generation gravitates to cities – where their jobs are — whereas baby boomers have built their homes in suburban locations…

Keys wondered if the housing preferences of the younger generation have truly changed or if there is only a “delay” in the demand for McMansions. Those homes may not be desirable to people in their late 20s but instead to people in their late 30s or 40s, he noted.

This is not the first time I have seen the suggestion that millennials have less interest in McMansions: Builder had a piece on this a few years back. And the baby boomers may have a problem bigger than just McMansions: who will buy all their homes, McMansions and otherwise? When housing becomes a primary investment for so many Americans, not having enough future buyers can become problematic.

More broadly, this discussion follows a typical pattern for stories and studies about millennials: will they act like previous generations (and have not done so thus far for a variety of reasons including an economic crisis and student loan debt) or do they truly have different tastes and want to lead different lives? In the realm of those who care about cities and suburbs, this is an ongoing discussion spanning years: will millennials be suburbanites or city-dwellers? Will they reject lives built around single-family homes and driving and prefer denser, diverse, culturally-rich communities (or a mix of both in “surban” places)?

If I had to guess, this group will exhibit some change from previous groups but probably not drastic change (based on the idea that social change tends to happen more slowly over time). Reversing suburban culture, ingrained among many American institutions and residents, would like take decades and not just one generation. The McMansions of older residents may not all sell at their preferred prices but barring another housing bubble (which could happen), they will be worth some money.

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.

Latest trend in American immigration involves newcomers from Asia

As the foreign-born population in the United States hits another record high, here is some data on who some of the latest immigrants are:

The share of the United States population that is foreign-born has reached its highest level since 1910, according to government data released last week. But in recent years, the numbers have been soaring not so much with Latin Americans sweeping across the border, but with educated people from Asia obtaining visas — families like the Patels, who have taken advantage of “family reunification” provisions that have been a cornerstone of federal immigration law for half a century…

“The big story here is just the massive misperception about the nature of immigration in the U.S.,” said Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in immigration policy. “The lion’s share of public attention is focused on what is now a very small number of people coming here illegally and showing up at the border seeking asylum.

“The reality is that a growing percentage of immigrants coming to the U.S. are highly educated, and are exactly the sort of people we want to be attracting.”…

Madeline Hsu, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Austin, Texas, said there were only about 12,000 Indian immigrants in the United States in 1960. The foreign-born Indian population last year stood at about 2.6 million, according to the Brookings Institution, and it had risen by almost half since 2010.

To help put the current political debate over immigration in perspective, the broader trends of immigration in the United States could help. From broad-scale immigration from Europe from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s to the restrictions of the 1920s to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Americans have swung back and forth about how much immigration should occur. The post-1965 era involves a large-scale swing back to more immigration and from non-European locations. Both of these are significant changes, even if it hearkens back to the late 1800s openness to immigration.

With this in mind, it may be easier to simply let the long-term trend of the last five decades continue. It is hard to imagine America today without all of the post-1965 immigrants. At the same time, the country’s history suggests there may be moments when sentiment turns on immigration. Either side of the immigration debate cannot be guaranteed that their perspective will necessarily win out.

This all suggests the issue at hand might be immigration but the larger, deeper issue could be significant social change.

Social change through a bureaucratic manual

Producing a manual may not seem like an effective pathway to social change but it can help in certain areas, such as new standards for bicycling in American cities:

To codify their emerging practice, they turned to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO had been formed in 1996 as a forum for big-city transportation planners to swap ideas, but it had never published a design guide before. That became one of its top priorities after Sadik-Khan was named president of the organization. For several months beginning in 2010, a group of 40 consultants and city transportation planners reviewed bike-lane designs from around the world and across the United States.

The result was NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the first national design standard for protected bike lanes. Like other standards, it answers the questions of space, time, and information that are at the heart of street design. How wide should a protected bike lane be? At least five feet, but ideally seven. How does one mix bike lanes and bus stops? Send the lane behind the bus stop, with enough space for bus riders to comfortably board and get off the bus. What about when bike lanes and turn lanes meet? Give bikes their own exclusive signals, or create “mixing zones,” shared spaces where people in cars and on bikes take turns entering the space…

The publication of the NACTO bikeway guide didn’t directly result in the creation of any new bike lanes. But the planners and engineers who wrote it recognized that for each of them to further progress in their own city, they had to collaborate on standards that would enable progress in any city.

As it turns out, the Urban Bikeway Design Guide was just the beginning. NACTO later released the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, a broader effort to push back against America’s car-first road designs and define streets that support urban life, with narrow lanes that encourage reasonable driving speeds and traffic signals that give people plenty of time to cross the street. More recently, the organization has published guides on designing streets to speed up public transit, and incorporate storm-water infrastructure.

It sounds like the manual was the culmination of collective efforts in multiple cities as well as the form that would be recognized in that particular field (urban planning). But, it hints at larger issues involving social change: it can happen through a variety of materials and people. If I were to teach about social change in an Introduction to Sociology class, we might talk about (1) large-scale social movements or (2) significant shifts in large institutions (like the economy or politics). We acknowledge material changes here and there: think the revolution of the printing press, the arrival of social media or smartphones, the invention of air conditioning, etc. Yet, bureaucratic changes (except national laws) receive little attention even though such shifts can influence many people without even knowing. Take the bike lanes example from above: the average city resident may notice the shift but would probably attribute the change to either local officials or local interest groups (and both would be partly true). But, the manual behind the changes will only be known to experts in that field.

How can a city reduce driving by 45%? Sustained effort over decades

Paris has significantly reduced traffic since 1990 but this was not an easy or quick task. This article suggests sustained effort from the city’s mayors was critical:

  • Jacques Chirac, Paris’ famously conservative (and public fund-embezzling) mayor from 1977 to 1995, helped encourage pedestrianism by increasing the number of bollards to prevent illegal sidewalk parking, Héran writes. Chirac also rehabilitated the Champs-Elysees into a true public promenade, with widened sidewalks, street parking eliminations, and refreshed green spaces.
  • Chirac’s chosen successor, Jean Tibéri, came under fire for not cracking down hard enough on Paris’ air quality problems (and was accused of election fraud!), but he does get credit for banning cars in the Place de la Concorde. In an effort to reduce traffic, he also introduced the city’s first bike plan in 1996, which established paths along the city’s main arteries and lower-speed neighborhood zones, Héran notes.
  • Elected Paris’ first openly gay mayor in 2001, the socialist Bertrand Delanoë “vowed that automobile interests would no longer dominate the city and he would focus on improving public spaces,” wrote Stephane Kirkland for the Project for Public Spaces in 2014. Delanoë made good on those promises during his 13-year tenure (while largely avoiding scandal): A number of streets were reconfigured to accommodate dedicated bus lanes. Some 400 miles of bicycle lanes were created. The banks of the Seine began to close to traffic in the summertime to make way for public “beaches.”And in 2007, the city introduced its bikeshare program, Vélib, now arguably the largest and most used such system in the West.
  • Delanoë’s protégé and current Mayor Anne Hidalgo is an outspoken environmentalist responsible for “some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city,” CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote last year. Hidalgo has implemented a ban on older cars on roads during weekdays, and has pedestrianized the lower quays of the Seine. “Car space is being slashed in many major squares, while car-free days have been introduced annually as a form of publicity campaign for a future without automobiles,” O’Sullivan wrote. (Furthermore, recent trip data from city hall do not support the claim by some motorists that Mayor Hidalgo’s car-free policies have made congestion worse. There’s been a sharp decline in the kilometers-traveled within the city, but only a small dip in kilometers-per-hour.)
  • Paris’ commitment to public transport far surpasses that of any city in the U.S., where it has been more than 30 decades since any new system opened. RATP, the public transport operator for the Île-de-France region, has increased its reach with new bus rapid-transit lines and a steadily growing suburban tram network whose first line opened in the early 1990s. New routes have been accompanied by sidewalk improvements, bike paths, and a variety of traffic calming measures. The lines are frequent and fast. Some are even driven autonomously.

Three quick thoughts regarding this brief history of Paris:

  1. Sustained effort across mayors and local government officials is not easy to do. This article covers 25+ years where different actors from different perspectives contributed to a desirable outcome. The amount of emphasis on reducing traffic probably differed quite a bit across administrations yet the small and big steps added up over time. Significant social change in large cities does not often happen quickly.
  2. The reasons for pursuing less car traffic are varied. Some might decry the environmental issues. Others might want more space for bicycling. More public space might motivate others. I wonder if any of these one reasons would have been enough to motivate these actions and push forward big changes. But, put together multiple reasons and people with different interests might be more likely to come together and promote fewer cars.
  3. How much easier is it to pursue such plans in a European city versus an American city? Additionally, this is Paris, a tourist hot-spot where people want to walk around and experience charming sights and neighborhoods. American cities may also desire less traffic – who wants to be delayed? – yet this is difficult to reconcile with American desires for individual transportation. At the same time, a chart in the article suggests London and Berlin are more like New York City in terms of driving.

How McMansions affect the children who grew up in them

The founder of the Tumblr McMansion Hell was asked about the effect of McMansions on younger generations:

Returning back to our earlier conversation about why your Tumblr seems to especially be popular among young people, it would seem that not only are young people rejecting their parents’ values but they’re also coming of age during a time that has other trends affecting the decline of McMansions. For instance people are choosing to remain in cities rather than move to suburbs, they’re prioritizing the quality of possessions versus the quantity, there’s a focus on minimalism and everyone’s obsessed with Marie Kondo and de-cluttering. What do you think about all of this?

I think that what it really boils down to is the previous generation — the McMansion buyers — [placed an emphasis] on owning and having assets and this [younger] generation is now more interested in having experiences. Having the experience of community by living in the city, having the experience of having a house that’s well-crafted. This is also the first generation that really grew up with the concept of global warming and we have more of an urgency because our lives are going to be impacted by it. For a lot of young people that grew up in the suburbs, once you reached adolescence, there was a quality of life that was really impacted by the isolation of the suburbs and I think that has played a huge role as to why the younger generation is rejecting this notion of ‘the big house’ and this notion of always being in the car.

There are a number of broad assumptions made here on both sides – interviewer and interviewee – and how they may be affected by McMansions. It is still not entirely clear that younger Americans don’t want to own homes in the suburbs or that consumerism has abated. Younger Americans do seem to have less interest in driving – as evidenced by delayed drivers licenses – though McMansions aren’t only located in exurbs. Some of this will take time to sort out as there have also been large scale economic events that have had some effect.

Among those who discuss McMansions, you would be hard pressed to find many who would argue McMansions are good for children. The opinion above is that children who grew up in such homes will react in certain ways to their negative effects. Yet, how many people reject the general values and norms of their parents? Americans often celebrate this ideal – teenagers should have room to explore, adults should be able to make their own choices and be their own person – but there is often more continuity in society than we suspect. Social change can indeed take place across generations but not all of life necessarily changes.

I can see it now: let’s replace the term Millennials with the McMansion generation. While most people didn’t grow up in such homes, it would fit certain narratives…