Social media reveals ongoing American tension between the individual and community life

A cultural historian who examined differences in loneliness between the 19th century and today comments on a larger tension in social interaction:

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?

Susan J. Matt…

While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.

And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.

So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Seeking affirmation is not necessarily a bad thing. In a face-to-face social interaction, isn’t each participant hoping that the other people respond favorably? This involves the concept of the “generalized other” and “impression management” in sociology: we act in certain ways because we anticipate how others will respond to us.

2. This tension plays out in numerous ways in American history. Two examples come to mind. First, the desire for small town life yet wanting the excitement and opportunities of cities (so meeting in the suburbs). Second, the desire to not be compelled to act in certain ways yet supporting local government and voluntary associations.

3. Another angle to take regarding this issue is whether smartphones and social media are separate phenomena with unique consequences or whether they follow in the line of other mass media technologies and exacerbate existing issues.

Tool to help urban strangers converse, make eye contact

Several researchers are working on the Jokebox, an invention intended to promote social interaction in cities:

Mara Balestrini, an expert in human-computer interaction and director of research at Ideas for Change, has been investigating ways to bring shared experiences back into public spaces. She’s been working with researchers from the UK and Mexico on the Jokebox project – an installation that involves separate wooden boxes, each equipped with speakers, sensors and arcade-style buttons, that tell a joke when two people activate them simultaneously.

The key, Balestrini tells me, is that it’s impossible for one person to push both buttons. “The Jokebox is an ice-breaker, an excuse to get strangers to talk to each other or to share a laugh in public spaces,” she explains. “It is also a technology prototype that can help us understand how to design novel interfaces to foster social connectedness in urban settings by encouraging eye contact and co-operation between strangers.”

As part of their study, the researchers conducted a series of tests in the north-western Mexican city of Ensenada. Boxes were set up in a park, a shopping centre and a bus stop. According to the project’s findings, people in those settings reacted in different ways – kids and parents would be more likely to play with the boxes in the park, for example, whereas teenagers were more likely to engage in the shopping centre. Even when people avoided using the Jokebox directly, which was frequently the case at the bus stop, it still provided an excuse for interaction – as is the case in this moment of gentle warmth….

Balestrini tells me future cities will combine different types of technologies, from those that support efficiency by replacing the humans to those that try to foster shared encounters among people. She says it is crucial to enable playfulness and curiosity, particularly in a moment where the discourse around cities revolves around ideas of data-driven automation and efficiency.

It is interesting to consider that it might be technology that could help bring people back into conversation. Is this the best we can do in societies thrilled with technological progress and private space (even when we are in public)? How successful might this be in drawing people out of their private realms or will it primarily appeal to those who are already more interested in social interaction? I’m not surprised that this device uses humor, a social phenomena that can cut across all sorts of social divides. At the same time, the humor has to be broad and affirming rather than the critique and sarcasm that is very common today.

Porches on new American homes increase by 21% between 1993 and 2013

More new American homes have porches:

As the Census Bureau reported in June, 63 percent of new single-family homes completed last year had this once-again-trendy feature, up from 42 percent in 1993. So what’s the cause of this major upswing? Well, as Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, revealed to the Wall Street Journal, the return of the porch is reflective of a desire for social connection. And as “a place between the privacy of the house and the public world of the street,” it’s perfect for just that.

See the official Census data here – the porch is up as well as the patio while decks have decreased.

But, the real question is whether this increase in porches is related to an increased use of porches. The quote above from Stern is paraphrased as “reflective of a desire for social connection” but not necessarily an actual uptick in that. This gets at an issue at the heart of some critiques of New Urbanism and other attempts at neo-traditional architecture: does building a porch change social behavior? Indeed, what if having a porch of the front of the house is more related to what is perceived as features that increase a home’s value?

All together, these new porches may be much more aspirational and about financial return than utilized for socializing.  We’ve all heard the story that people in the not-too-distant past used to sit on the porch all the time but, unfortunately, I’m not aware of any data sources that consistently measure this in the American population at large…

The relatively narrow geographic boundaries of TV sitcoms

TV shows often don’t have a very wide geographic scope as the characters interact in a limited physical space:

Most shows define their social universes geographically: They are populated by people whom circumstance has thrown together, physically. The throwing could take place in a bar (Cheers), in a coffee shop (Friends), in an apartment (New Girl), in an office (The Office), at a taxi dispatch service (Taxi), at a TV studio (30 Rock), or, of course, in a house (pretty much every other sitcom ever). Regardless, in the social—and, you could say, moral—cosmology of the typical sitcom, it is spatial connection that leads to social connection.

In part, these physical spaces are plot devices that explain to audiences why this small group of people seems to be always together, and always so insulated in their togetherness. In HIMYM, the friends’ go-to bar, MacLaren’s—conveniently located in the basement of the building where three of the five characters live—functions in the same way that Monica’s apartment (and Mindy Lahiri’s ob-gyn practice, and Greendale Community College) do: They allow the audience to suspend disbelief. They sacrifice the inevitable frictions of real-world social relationships—the vagaries of distance, the misalignments of schedules—at the altar of sitcomic convenience.

There are obvious production-side reasons for that social narrowness, too, of course: Actors are expensive. Contracts are a pain. TV programs, even in the age of the DVR and the stream and the binge-watch, need to offer their audiences some sense of stability, episode after episode. But what those constraints amount to, ultimately, are shows that embrace an eponymous approach to family itself: According to the most basic logic of the sitcom, one’s family is “the group of people that situation has thrown together, comedically.” So we get The Office‘s ironized treatment of the workplace family. And The Big Bang Theory‘s haphazard fusion of work life and home. And Modern Family‘s casual confidence that an entire TV show can be premised on demographics alone…

HIMYM may have done this for the same reason that, say, Sex and the City often treated its male characters as expendable—that reason being that that’s just how sitcoms are—but it amounted, in context, to a premise that was often misaligned with the realities of friendship as its audience was experiencing them. It’s worth noting that the show, which premiered in September 2005, came of age in the age of social media. (Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook in 2004.) At a time when many members of its audience were experiencing friendship as newly expansive, and newly transcendent of geography, HIMYM‘s five characters hunkered down at MacLaren’s. They hung out in a single apartment. They dated one another. They married one another. And they used and/or ignored the people who existed beyond their tiny social circle. It was Central Perk all over again.

Sitcoms are bounded in numerous ways (limited number of characters, fairly formulaic storylines, similar kinds of jokes) but this analysis of space is quite interesting: for convenience and forced interaction, characters keep gathering in a public/private space. One question would be whether this geographic narrowness on TV matches reality for average Americans. At the least, they would have more knowledge about the outside world, whether current events or sports or celebrity news that simply isn’t included in most sitcoms (the info would be dated by the time it airs, etc.). Yet, good portions of our lives are spent in bounded areas like work and home. Meeting in third places like bars and coffee shops? Not so much.

A call for better statistics to better distinguish between competitive gamers

Here is a call for more statistics in gaming, which would help understand the techniques of and differentiation between competitive gamers:

Some people even believe that competitive gaming can get more out of stats than any conventional sport can. After all, what kind of competition is more quantifiable than one that’s run not on a field or on a wooden floor but on a computer? What kind of sport should be able to more defined by stats than eSports?

“The dream is the end of bullshit,” says David Joerg, owner of the StarCraft statistic website GGTracker. “eSports is the one place where everything the player has done is recorded by the computer. It’s possible—and only possible in eSports—where we can have serious competition and know everything that’s going on in the game. It’s the only place where you can have an end to the bullshit that surrounds every other sport. You could have bullshit-free analysis. You’d have better conversations, better players, and better games. There’s a lot of details needed to get there, but the dream is possible.”…

“There are some stats in every video game that are directly visible to the player, like kill/death,” GGTacker’s Joerg said. “Everyone will use it because it’s right in front of their face, and then people will say that stat doesn’t tell the whole story. So then a brave soul will try to invent a stat that’s a better representation of a player’s value, but that leads to a huge uphill battle trying to get people to use it correctly and recognize its importance.”…

You could make the argument that a sport isn’t a sport until it has numbers backing it up. Until someone can point a series of statistics that clearly designate a player’s superiority, there will always be doubters. If that’s true, then it’s true for eSports as much as it was for baseball, football and any other sport when it was young. For gaming, those metrics remain hidden in the computers running StarCraft, League of Legends, Call of Duty and any other game being played in high-stakes tournaments. Slowly, though, we’re starting to discover how competitive gaming truly works. We’re starting to find the numbers that tell the story. That’s exciting.

This is a two part problem:

1. Developing good statistics based on important actions with a game that have predictive ability.

2. Getting the community of gamers to agree that these statistics are relevant and can be helpful to the community.

Both are complex problems in their own right and this will likely take some time. Gaming’s most basic statistic – who won – is relatively easy to determine but the numbers behind that winning and losing are less clear.

Architectural sociology approach to why Las Vegas residents don’t know their neighbors

Sociologists looking at why Las Vegas residents don’t know their neighbors explain that the design of their newer subdivisions are partly to blame:

“So that means squeezing a lot of houses into small lots, and it also means an architectural design in many cases that doesn’t facilitate the flow of people,” UNLV sociology professor Robert Futrell said.In 2010, UNLV professors conducted a survey of neighborhoods and people living throughout the Valley. They found that communities built after the construction boom of the 1990s include narrow streets, concrete walls, short driveways and few front porches. All of these things impede social interaction.

“While many developers have tried to create these master-planned communities to be high-functioning, high-interacting neighborhoods, many of them are not working that way,” Batson said.

Professors point to neighborhoods with short driveways as an example. People drive up to their homes, open the garage and drive in without talking to anyone.

The article goes on to say that residents in these communities truly do want to interact with their neighbors. But, design holds them back.

Is it completely the fault of design? The beginning of the article also notes that Las Vegas has many transient residents. If it is truly the design, we should be able to look at neighborhoods with different designs and measure higher levels of social interaction. Is this what we actually find? New Urbanists argue it is all about designing neighborhoods in a traditional way but they don’t as often bring up the data that would show the neighborhoods do what they say they should do. Other might counter that even with some better home design, people are still distracted from social interaction because of cars, air conditioning, television, the Internet, and more.

Another thought: would the residents of these new neighborhoods be willing to trade the size of their homes or the interior features of their homes for some more neighborly features?