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.

Nostalgia for shopping malls amid decades of critique

Many shopping malls are in dire straits. The potential end of shopping malls can also induce nostalgia and good memories. Add to the decades-long critique of how shopping malls have harmed communities and societies and we have an odd moment: should we celebrate or lament the end of shopping malls?

A few reasons why there is nostalgia:

  1. The shopping mall was a prime social space, let alone a business space, for at least a generation or two. Hanging out at the mall as a teenager was a sign of independence for many and it is glorified by media narratives and images.
  2. The shopping mall is a marker of the past and those growing older can often lament the disappearance of what they knew. Perhaps they did not even like shopping malls or visit them very much but they are a marker for a particular era.
  3. The shopping mall was a significant shift in the shopping experience by providing a collection of chain stores in a single place surrounded by plentiful parking. While we have since moved to big box stores and now to online shopping, the shopping mall transformed retail.

But balance the nostalgia with the critiques:

  1. Shopping malls killed downtowns, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, across the country.
  2. Shopping malls are part of suburban sprawl that wastes resources and land (and contributes to more driving)
  3. They contributed to mass consumption and commercialization. As one quick example: would the commercial celebration of Christmas today be the same without the development of the mall?

How shopping malls end up in the collective memory down the road still remains to be seen. Once the generations that spent so much time in shopping malls is gone, what will their legacy be?

 

The suburban dimension to the Kavanaugh hearings

The testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh all revolved around a suburban high school social scene. Some suburban features of the matter at hand:

-Kavanaugh lived in Bethesda, Maryland. This community just northwest of Washington D.C. is largely white as well as very wealthy and educated. Ford also lived in the Washington D.C. suburbs.

-Kavanaugh described his summers in high school as involving working (having his own lawn mower business, working in construction) and getting together with friends. It sounds like they were able to drive themselves places. They had some measure of independence to engage in teenager activities. Ford described spending many summer days at the country club pool.

-Both Kavanaugh and Ford went to private schools in high school and highly ranked colleges (Yale and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill).

-The partying and drinking scene at people’s houses and other settings (like the beach) sounds like descriptions I have heard about parties in wealthier suburbs as well as occasional stories relayed to me from my own suburban setting.

-Kavanaugh described himself as working really hard at school even as he also came from a family with good jobs and resources. He also described participation in a number of high school activities including football.

-Kavanaugh had a decent-sized group of friends who hung out and knew each other fairly well (even if they have not kept up so well over the years since high school).

-A number of the physical settings mentioned in the hearing are common in suburbia. The alleged assault took place at a two-story suburban house in nearby Chevy Chase (also a very white and wealthy suburb) that probably does not stand out much from neighboring houses. Ford described running into Mark Judge at a local supermarket.

-Both Ford and Kavanaugh ended up in successful careers that might be considered befitting of their wealthier suburban origins: Kavanaugh has a law degree and is a judge and Ford has a Ph.D. and is a psychologist.

The descriptions of this suburban life from the allegation and the denial seem like they could come from any number of wealthier American suburbs. These are places where teenagers often have a good measure of independence and some access to vehicles, money, and alcohol (and/or drugs), the teenagers generally end up as successes, and some mischief or misdeeds are allowable for kids from good families (and perhaps even encouraged). On one hand, these are the sorts of places where teenage life can look pretty good. On the other hand, as the hearings imply, wealthier suburban life can go horribly wrong in ways that resources and success can not easily remedy.

The (in)action that results when 54% of teenagers are worried about spending too much time on their smartphones

A new Pew report suggests just over half of teenagers are concerned about smartphone use:

Teens hold mixed opinions about whether they spend too much time in front of screens …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The initial headline finding about the 54% could be interpreted two ways:

  1. Only 54% of teenagers are worried about this???
  2. This is great that at least half of teenagers are worried about this!!!

But, the additional detail in the survey responses suggests the devil is in the details:

Interestingly, there is little association between teens’ views of how much time they spend on various screens and whether or not they have tried to limit their time on those devices. For instance, 53% of teens who say they spend too much time on their cellphone have ever cut back the amount of time they spend on their phone. That is nearly identical to the 55% of teens who say they spend about the right amount or too little time on their phone who have tried to limit their mobile usage.

In other words, a slight majority of teenagers are worried about their smartphone use but roughly half of that group has “ever” tried to limit their use. Their concerns are not necessarily translating into action. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Smartphone use is just so ubiquitous. Cutting back or not using the smartphone is tantamount to not being part of the 21st century.
  2. Peer pressure. If they do not participate as much, their social world passes them by.
  3. They do not have good models to look to as to how to limit their use. (This is where the data from the same report on parental concerns is interesting.)

This seems to be consistent with some of the work my colleagues and I have done regarding social network site use. Users may be able to articulate problems they face using social media and smartphones but very few of them opt out of the realm altogether because there are clear benefits to continuing.

How exactly teenagers and other smartphone and social media users will learn to employ what they would consider appropriate boundaries in using these devices and platforms is an open question.

Living the suburban teenage life through local Twitter

In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans said the suburban community was “endsville” for teenagers. But, suburban teenagers today can take to Twitter:

A decade ago, if you were a bored teen looking to post about suburban life, relationship problems, Starbucks, or fleeting thoughts like, “The holidays are approaching and being single sucksssss lol,” you might turn to Facebook. But of course, today’s teens don’t use Facebook. Instead, they take their most #relatable thoughts to Twitter, often racking up hundreds of thousands of retweets and faves in the process.

Twitter is full of tribes: gay Twitter, stan Twitter, politics Twitter, media Twitter, weird Twitter. The mostly white, well-adjusted suburban teens who share stale platitudes of the kind that some internet users might call “basic” are part of a tribe known as local Twitter.

Though most users do mainly follow people from their hometowns, local Twitter has more to do with what you tweet than where you live. The typical local Twitter user is a teen who is “in their own bubble of simple life pleasures and desires,” doesn’t live their entire life online, “and uses Twitter to connect to their real-life friends like they used to do on Facebook,” explains Raeequaza, a 22-year-old in New York…

Local Twitter teens are townie-like in the sense that their world mostly revolves around life in their hometown, though most will probably grow up and eventually leave for college. Some older local Twitter users might actually be townies, but the majority of local Twitter—particularly the part that has the power to make local tweets go viral—is made up of teens.

The ongoing plight of American teenagers in suburbia continues: they feel cut off from the exciting outside world, the suburbs are dull and do not feature spaces for teenagers, the suburbs represent conformity and middle-of-the-road values, and daily life revolves around school and family. Compared to Gans’ time where being able to drive represented freedom for teenagers, now teenagers can escape the suburbs (or live the ironic suburban life) through Internet and social media connections that theoretically can connect them to any person or place in the world.

Two additional quick thoughts:

  1. How many of these local Twitter users will end up living in suburbs as adults?
  2. Are the local Twitter users more perceptive about their local surroundings or are they just willing to tweet about their observations?

Journalist tries to summarize 8% of teens not on social media

Most American teenagers use social media. So, how should a journalist go about finding about those who do not?

Such abstention from social media places him in a small minority in his peer group. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 92% of American teenagers (ages 13-17) go online daily, including 24% who say they are on their devices “almost constantly.” Seventy-one percent use Facebook, half are on Instagram, and 41% are Snapchat users. And nearly three-quarters of teens use more than one social-networking site. A typical teen, according to Pew, has 145 Facebook friends and 150 Instagram followers…

Most of the social-media abstainers whom I interviewed aren’t technophobes. On the contrary, they have mobile phones that they use to contact their friends, usually via text. They are internet-savvy and fully enmeshed in popular culture. And they are familiar with social media. They just don’t like it…

For many nonusers of social media, the immediacy of face-to-face interaction trumps the filtered intimacy of Facebook and Instagram. “I do love seeing kids otherwise attached to their phones equalize when they’re cut off,” says Katy Kunkel of McLean, Va., whose four children range in age from 7 to 12. None of them are on social media. Especially during the summer months, she notes, “The kids recalibrate much quicker than adults. They find a tribe, then fun or trouble in trees and creeks…. They are way more active by default.”

The children themselves don’t often feel that they are missing out. Even though “almost 100%” of his friends are on social media, Brian O’Neill says that he can’t recall a time when something important happened in his social circle and he didn’t hear about it. “They let me know if something is going on,” he said. Ms. Furman’s experience is similar: “Sometimes I wouldn’t understand a specific joke everyone was telling, but 90% of the time, it’s not really worth it—it’s just a joke.”

Small subpopulations like this – the 8% of teenagers not using social media – can be attractive to journalists and social scientists alike: what causes them to go against the pervasive social norms? However, studying such small groups is often difficult. Large-scale surveys will not pick up many of them as there aren’t many to find.

This journalist went the route of interviews which can provide more detail but take more time. Still, how do you find such teenagers to interview when they are not easy to track down online? (Well, these teenagers might be active on other parts of the web without being on social media.) Perhaps a snowball sample was used or a quota sample. And, how many teenagers should you interview? The article quotes just several teenagers – perhaps more were interviewed – and tries to suggest that these quotes are representative of the 8% of teenagers not on social media.

Does this article correctly identify the reasons behind why a few teenagers are not using social media? It is hard to know but I’m not too hopeful based on a limited number of interviews with teenagers who may or may not represent those 8%. This may work for a journalist but I hope it wouldn’t pass academic muster.

Could you design a skatepark that the neighbors don’t mind?

Designing outdoor spaces for teenagers – such as basketball courts – is difficult as many residents don’t like the activity. One Finnish landscape architect thinks there is a way to cut down on complaints:

Though they’re a teen-friendly third space, many skateparks receive noise complaints, and as a result, may be  deemed too much of a nuisance to maintain. Some parks are removed after only a few years of use at the request of nearby residents, possibly resulting in thousands of dollars in city funds squandered. However, Saario doesn’t think this is inevitable. The parks that go astray, he believes, are a result of poor community planning, awareness, and design—and sometimes independent business contractors who don’t have the skaters’ or the community’s best interests at heart.

“If a landscape architect is designing a space like this, they need to take the time and map land that’s accessible, but far enough away from residential areas so as to not disturb local neighborhoods,” Saario says. Cities often have multiple locations where new recreational spaces can be installed, and some idea of the ground conditions they’re building on top of, but Saario says landscape architects are needed so that officials can understand what design options are available within each site, and whether multiple types of users are permissible.

Saario’s final requirement for designing a park is that it’s built around a unique element that encourages conversation between groups and imaginative ideas. “I grew up skating inside an asphalt pool named The Footprint of the Giant,” he says. “When I met other skaters in the city, they knew where we were from—we had an identity. Skateparks need to have a strong concept that creates a sense of place.”

For an example of integrating a local landmark within a new park, Saario points to Fiskars, a village about 100 kilometers from Helsinki. Fiskars city officials recognized the need for a recreational space for kids and teens, but weren’t sure where to place it so as to avoid any disturbances. The officials asked Saario to analyze a number of possible locations for the park and suggest the best placement. Saario’s solution was to tear down a concrete manure silo near an abandoned barn at the edge of the city. In its place, a number of concrete bumps, curbs, and ledges (pictured above) were added to create the park’s surface. The final design used the brick walls from the original silo structure to support the newly poured concrete. “We were able to cut down on the park’s expenses this way,” he says. “And architecturally, there was a nice contrast of new against old.”

The ideas seem sound: reuse old spaces and materials, create unique skateparks that give users a sense of place, listen to the input of the teenagers/users, and don’t locate right near residences. Yet, finding the “perfect site” is likely to be difficult in many communities.

These issues are not new. I recall Herbert Gans noting in The Levittowners that the new mass suburbs offered few opportunities for teenagers away from their homes. On one hand, American teenagers are encouraged to assert their independence but on the other hand, few suburbs like the idea of large groups of teenagers hanging around. Does this help explain the rise of organized and structured activities – the fear of parents and communities that just hanging around will lead to trouble? Additionally, the teenagers themselves often have little voice in the political process as they cannot yet vote and may not like the idea of working with the system.