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.

Reminder: “Twitter Is Not America”

A summary of recent data from Pew provides the reminder that Twitter hardly represents the United States as a whole:

In the United States, Twitter users are statistically younger, wealthier, and more politically liberal than the general population. They are also substantially better educated, according to Pew: 42 percent of sampled users had a college degree, versus 31 percent for U.S. adults broadly. Forty-one percent reported an income of more than $75,000, too, another large difference from the country as a whole. They were far more likely (60 percent) to be Democrats or lean Democratic than to be Republicans or lean Republican (35 percent)…

First, Pew split up the Twitter users it surveyed into two groups: the top 10 percent most active users and the bottom 90 percent. Among that less-active group, the median user had tweeted twice total and had 19 followers. Most had never tweeted about politics, not even about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s meeting with Donald Trump.

Then there were the top 10 percent most active users. This group was remarkably different; its members tweeted a median of 138 times a month, and 81 percent used Twitter more than once a day. These Twitter power users were much more likely to be women: 65 percent versus 48 percent for the less-active group. They were also more likely to tweet about politics, though there were not huge attitudinal differences between heavy and light users.

In fancier social science terms, this suggests what happens on Twitter is not generalizable to the rest of Americans. It may not reflect what people are actually talking about or debating. It may not reflect the full spectrum of possible opinions or represent those opinions in the proportions they are generally held throughout the entire country. This does not mean that is no value in examining what happens on Twitter, but the findings are limited more to the population that uses it.

In contrast, the larger proportion of Americans who are on Facebook might appear to suggest that Facebook is more representative of the American population. But, another issue might arise, one that could dog social media platforms for years to come: how much content and interaction is driven by power users versus the percent of users who have relatively dormant accounts. I assume leaders of platforms would prefer more users become power users but this may not happen. What happens to any social media platform that has strong bifurcations between power users and less active users? Is this sustainable? Facebook has a goal to connect more people but this is unlikely to happen with such disparities in use.

This is why discussing or confirming trends seen on social media platforms might require more evidence from other sources or longer periods of time to verify. Even what might appear as widespread trends in social media could be limited to certain portions of the population. We may know more about smaller patterns in society that were once harder to see but putting together the big picture may be trickier.

 

A preview of my upcoming talk on social media, emerging adults, and religiosity

Ahead of my participation in the “Emerging Adults: Formation for Mission” conference taking place soon on the Wheaton College campus is an interview regarding my talk:

I would describe the use of social media by emerging adults as a mix of excitement and resignation. A vast majority of emerging adults participate. They describe learning about relationships they already have, connecting with friends and family, seeing pictures, sharing jokes.

They find out about events and news through social media. They search for romantic partners through social media.

On the other side, they can articulate some of the downsides of this use including a lack of focus, not spending time with people (just their feeds), and the conflict that can arise in social media. Not participating means missing key connections and knowledge that others can access. Current emerging adults have known and participated in social media all of their lives and will continue to use social media as they age beyond this life stage.

The emerging adults of today are immersed in social media, technology, and other forms of media and they bring this with them as they consider faith and church.

While there is a lot of work looking at social media or social network site (SNS) use, relatively little of it in sociology and other disciplines addresses how this activity is influenced by or influences religion. This talk will help bring together several years of research projects with my sociology colleagues Peter Mundey and Jon Hill.

Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

We need more research to confirm or dispute the first study to claim a causal connection between social media use and depression and loneliness

A new psychology study argues that reduced time spent with social media leads to less depression:

For the study, Hunt and her team studied 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania over a number of weeks. They tested their mood and sense of well-being using seven different established scales. Half of the participants carried on using social media sites as normal. (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat did not respond to request for comment.)

The other half were restricted to ten minutes per day for each of the three sites studied: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the most popular sites for the age group. (Use was tracked through regular screen shots from the participants’ phones showing battery data.)

Net result: Those who cut back on social media use saw “clinically significant” falls in depression and in loneliness over the course of the study. Their rates of both measures fell sharply, while those among the so-called “control” group, who did not change their behavior, saw no improvement.

This isn’t the first study to find a link between social media use, on the one hand, and depression and loneliness on the other. But previous studies have mainly just shown there is a correlation, and the researchers allege that this shows a “causal connection.”

I’m guessing this study will get a good amount of attention because of this claim. Here is how this should work in the coming months and years:

  1. Other researchers should work to replicate this study. Do the findings hold with undergraduate students elsewhere in similar conditions?
  2. Other researchers should tweak the conditions of the study in a variety of ways. Move beyond undergraduates to both younger and older participants. (Most social media research involves relatively young people.) Change the national context. Expand the sample size. Lengthen the study beyond three weeks to look at longer-term effects of social media use.
  3. All the researchers involved need time and discussion to reach a consensus about all of the work conducted under #1 and #2 above. This could come relatively soon if most of the studies agree with the conclusions or it could take quite a while if results differ.

All together, once a claim like this has empirical backing, other researchers should follow up and see whether it is correct. In the meantime, it will be hard for the public, the companies involved, and policymakers to know what to do as studies build upon each other.

The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)