Palaces for the People, Part 4: Facebook community versus physical community

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. Today, I highlight the last of four passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

Returning to social media toward the end of the book and specifically discussing Facebook, Klinenberg suggests online interaction is not a good substitute for interaction in real space in real time:

But no matter how the site’s designers tweak Facebook content, the human connections we need to escape danger, establish trust, and rebuild society require recurrent social interaction in physical places, not pokes and likes with “friends” online. (212)

This is a regular theme in the book: social media interaction cannot match social interaction that takes place face-to-face in real places.

I would guess social media platforms will try really hard in the next few years to change their platforms to encourage more positive social interactions. Some users already work hard to avoid negative interactions. Facebook, for example, is pushing community groups more. Instagram is hiding likes. Twitter is allowing people to hide responses to their posts. Will this all work? Possibly. But, Klinenberg argues that all of these efforts can only go so far. Humans will still need physical places that encourage interaction, trust, and new ideas.

Imagine social media in ten years that is primarily made up of positive interactions. Perhaps then it will be criticized for largely hiding negative emotions or conflict. Perhaps it be dull in the way that endlessly cheery stories might be. Or perhaps it will be seen as a supplement to offline relationships rather than competition for them.

Another way to think about Klinenberg’s ideas: what do public spaces need to be in order to entice people away from social media? There are ingredients that make public spaces more interesting such as a regular flow of people, a variety of activity, a human scale, and perceived safety. Do we have enough of these to truly people people way from their smartphones and if not, how much work would it take to develop spaces like this all over the country?

Palaces for the People, Part 1: building relationships in physical proximity

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. In the next few days, I will highlight a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of relationships and social media in Chapter One, Klinenberg concludes:

Building real connections requires a shared physical environment – a social infrastructure. (41)

Research on social media tends to back this up: meaningful or lasting relationships on social media are often grounded in offline interactions and relationships. Social media may be particularly good at helping people maintain connections over time but many social media relationships have roots in or also take place offline. These deeper connections take place in particular settings. Physical spaces can help foster social interaction and togetherness.

This reminds me of Herbert Gans’ conclusions about the lives of teenagers in an early Levittown: there was nowhere for them to go. If there are not tangible physical spaces for young adults to gather (a role formerly played by the shopping mall), then the smartphone and social media look more attractive. Communities may struggle to find places for teenagers to go and be welcome – for example, even shopping malls did not necessarily want them – but the alternative may be worse.

Suburban movements fight for and against selling marijuana in communities

Chicago area suburbs considering whether to allow marijuana sales within municipal boundaries have encountered efforts from residents on both sides of the issue:

An “Opt Out” movement that began in Naperville has spawned similar efforts in several other communities across the North, Northwest and West suburbs, pleading with city councils and village boards to ban the sales of adult-use marijuana within their boundaries…

An “Opt In” movement, though in some cases less overtly organized or connected, is present in many places, too, and just as passionate about its message that recreational marijuana stores should be allowed…

At the heart of the opt out effort, supporters say, is a desire to protect children from the potential harms of normalized marijuana use..

Supporters promote the value of potential tax revenue for municipal projects and point out marijuana use and possession will be legal no matter where the stores set up.

Three quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like the speed by which these efforts have coalesced across suburbs is partly attributable to social media. Through different platforms, it is relatively easy to promote a particular message and alert supporters about local meetings.

2. Pitting the safety of children versus potential revenue for suburbs pits important suburban values against each other. Arguably, the suburbs are all about kids: the whole structure is set up to help them get ahead, to do better than their parents, to have good educational opportunities within a safe and family-friendly environment. At the same time, budgets are tight in many suburbs and extra revenue could help provide all sorts of civic goods (including reducing the tax burdens of residents). Which argument wins out may depend on how the suburb sees itself.

3. It is hard to know at this point where the dispensaries might be located, with or without decisions made by individual communities. At first, Illinois will award 75 licenses. Given the population of the Chicago region plus the wealth present in numerous suburban communities, where will firms want to open shop? Is it as simple as going for the wealthiest customers within a certain radius of the store or are there other considerations of the best locations for marijuana dispensaries?

Briefly considering the factors behind less successful social media platforms

Social media may seem all powerful and present at this particular moment but it may be helpful to remember that numerous social media platforms did not succeed and for a variety of reasons:

By the New York Times’s and Abrams’s own account, though, hubris killed Friendster. A group of venture capitalists persuaded Abrams to turn down a $30 million offer from Google and then ran it into the ground with novel features rather than keeping the creaky site functioning smoothly. Pages just didn’t load…

In 2008, two years after reportedly surpassing Google as the most-visited website in the United States, Facebook eclipsed Myspace’s monthly user count. In 2011, when Myspace announced it was laying off half its staff, the New York Times attributed its decline to “fickle consumers and changing tastes”; a corporate “culture clash”; litter of celebrity promotion and pop-up ads; and Facebook’s standardized utilitarian interface–meaning that prefab profiles with names stylings like John Doe versus jdoe1234 were appealing to people. Forbes attributes Facebook’s generic design and its slow expansion through universities (with school email address verifications) and 13+ age policy to a perception that Facebook was a “safe space,” which would have incidentally coincided with a technopanic created by news reports of pedophilia. Social media scholar danah boyd performed an extensive study finding that racism also played a part, with upper-middle class white users deciding to wall off into exclusive groups…

The app for college students that quickly turned into a Black Mirror episode. Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging app designed by frat brothers Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington with campuses in mind, allowed users to broadcast posts within a five-mile radius without creating a username. It soon became a scourge on 1,600 schools, terrorized by Yik Yak-borne threats: bomb threats which led to multiple lockdowns and evacuations, a threat of a “Virginia Tech 2.0,” threats by white students to kill black students, threats to rape and “euthanize” feminist students, and general cruelty and mockery encouraging suicide. Several schools banned it, subpoenas and court orders were issued, federal complaints were filed against schools, and Yik Yak had to disable the app near high schools and middle schools altogether…

Over the next decade, Orkut never took off in the US but was huge in Brazil and India, at one point, claiming 27 million members to Facebook’s 4.2 million. Orkut ostensibly fulfilled the same basic needs, but observers/analysts/users attributed Facebook’s dominance to a number of factors: Facebook had more games, the feed, the like button or notifications, a more “professional” look, mutual friends , and cultivated a following of international students and “professionals” who brought Facebook back to India.

These explanations have a tinge of post-hoc analysis made easier by comparisons to which platforms did succeed. But, a full explanation of what leads to success for some platforms and not others likely gets complicated by a variety of factors:

  1. Timing. When is the platform introduced, how much of a user base does it attract and at what speed, and how does it compare at the time to other options?
  2. Particular features offered.
  3. The user experience/interface.
  4. Organizational skills. Could the company effectively move forward or did it keep making problems for itself?
  5. Financial backing.
  6. Appeal to a narrower or broader audience.

That Facebook is viewed as a success does not necessarily mean that it had all the appealing features or a certain genius at its helm or simply arrived at the right time and in the right place. How fields develop like this is complex and littered with winners and losers, some more responsible for their own fate and others more influenced by the social forces around them. And developing the full story will likely take time as we assess how today’s winners fare and how social media itself as a form of technology evolves.

Online publication of “Emerging SNS use”

My colleague Peter Mundey and I have a new article published online at the Journal of Youth Studies titled “Emerging SNS use: the importance of social network sites for older American emerging adults.”

The abstract:

This study asks how older emerging adults (23–28 years old) describe, understand, and interpret their own social network site (SNS) use, as well as whether this SNS use promotes social ties and life satisfaction or leads to negative consequences. Based on organic mentions of SNS use in interviews from Wave 4 of the National Study of Youth and Religion (N = 302), we find: maintaining relationships is the largest SNS use while older emerging adults also expressed difficulties in online relationships and finding romantic partners; they use SNS in new domains, such as work and politics; aging and generational changes affect how they view SNS use as they have new demands on their time; and they expect to continue to use SNS. The findings suggest limited support for the argument that SNS use promotes sociality and well-being and some indications that SNS use negatively influences older emerging adults. We argue SNS use will be similar and different as older emerging adults age – they will continue to use SNS to maintain relationships yet new demands will alter other uses – and this has implications for employment as well for as political, religious, and SNS leaders.

 

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.

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.