In my continuing quest to better understand the desire for social connection that afflicts most people (this is a partial joke about my own disagreeable nature), I recently read a book called Bowling Alone based upon multiple recommendations from disparate sources.
In this book, Robert Putnam makes a pretty compelling case that American social capital has been steadily declining for decades. The two main culprits, he argues, seem to be longer commutes and television. (Keep in mind that this book was written before the explosion of social media).
As someone who has repeatedly written with concern about the effects that social media has had on the way that we relate to both other human beings and the ideas that other human beings have, I found it very interesting to read something written just a few years before Facebook was created and long before algorithmic curation and newsfeeds became the norm for social networks and content aggregators.
With any complicated phenomenon, it’s extremely challenging to create causal explanations through epidemiological data and survey responses, but Putnam is fairly careful in terms of how he explains things – offering many caveats and alternative explanations for his conclusions, as well as some more detailed explanations of his statistical processes in the appendix.
While each innovation in media seems to bring out Luddites railing against the potential unintended consequences – from the printing press, to radio, to television, to e-mail, to social media – that doesn’t mean that each of those groups haven’t had valid critiques. We often find, though, that the juice is in fact worth the squeeze when introducing new technologies. The introduction of the printing press probably did impact the overall ability of the population to memorize important cultural stories and it probably did introduce a sense of information overwhelm that resulted in people going “wide” on a lot of topics rather than “deep” on a few culturally agreed upon classics. But, we’d rather have a lot of different ideas from different authors than sitting around reciting the Iliad yet again – and that’s a fine trade-off to make.
If I overlay Putnam’s arguments with my experiences both as a relatively anti-social person and as a person with a leadership position in a small-ish organization in which I’m trying to create higher degrees of social capital, I can say that I’ve seen and felt an overall decline in engagement and willingness to “participate.”
In Putnam’s arguments, he blames commuting – both due to the time spent traveling as well as the fracturing of the community that one engages with, since an individual can now belong to three geographical communities for home, work, and hobbies/children’s activities as opposed to all of those taking place in the same region – as well as television – due to the very low transaction cost ability to stay home instead of engaging in the broader community – as the two major causal factors for the decline in social capital.
If I think about the difficulties of trying to either get myself to attend a social event or to get others to attend something like a gym outing or a heavy metal concert, I think that the low transaction cost of staying home coupled with the high mental transaction cost of going out (despite some improvements in transportation efficiency due to ride-sharing, etc.) may be a key factor in terms of the continued decline in engagement.
Note that this is all wild speculation and I have no business talking about any of this stuff with any authority since I’ve basically read one book on it lol.
Increased at-home entertainment options – from things like Netflix, smartphones, and social media – make it really easy to elect to stay home. And, in fact, staying home is often a much more engaging experience – even if it may not provide us with the same level of retroactive fulfillment as heading out into the world.
Imagine going to an amusement park.
Most of the time, you’re hot, waiting in a line, surrounded by obnoxious people, feeling crowded, and overpaying for snacks. But, the brief thrills that you get from the rides (the “peak experiences” of the trip) are exciting enough and salient enough in your memory that it’s worthwhile for many people to make the trip.
However, your moment-to-moment experience would be much more positive staying at home and watching Netflix rather than waiting in line for 30 minutes to spend $15 on a terrible piece of pizza at Great America. Sometimes, we seemingly prioritize the satisfaction of our future self’s memories over the immediate comfort of our current selves.
The options and connectivity presented to us by the internet also create a sense of overwhelm with the various obligations, FOMO and event invites that we all receive. We also receive fewer individual invitations to participate in social activities, since a lot of outreach occurs through Facebook event invites, group texts, and e-mail blasts.
Additionally, we are also concerned with curating our digital image on social media, and we know that almost everything we do will be documented in some form or another through Instagram stories and group pics. This creates a pressure for everything to be “extra fun” – which can also make things overwhelming since we may not feel up to dressing up and putting on a show for the cell phone.
This all combines to create a high mental transaction cost for engaging in social commitments, since we have to make dozens of decisions to filter through all of our options and prepare ourselves to be documented – even though the physical transaction cost getting somewhere has likely been reduced through the omnipresence of ride-sharing.
On an individual level, then, it’s easy to see how the access to easy, low friction entertainment that promises a steady level of comfort in Netflix and social media can overwhelm the high activation energy needed to attend a social gathering, a concert, or an optional community meeting.
Putnam discusses TV watching and categorizes individuals into those who either passively turn on the television whenever they are home versus those who only watch TV when they have actively chosen to follow a specific show. It seems that the negative effects on social engagement of television are more pronounced in the first group of passive television consumers.
The causality of something like this is likely complicated – and I would hypothesize that behavior here potentially tracks with a personality trait like conscientiousness – meaning, those who tend to be organized, structured, and better at controlling impulses are much less negatively affected by the presence of a low-friction entertainment option like television. (See also: junk food)
Still, I think that we are likely to see a bifurcation of negative effects on engagement that is further exacerbated by things like smart phones, social media, and Netflix.
Those who are better able to organize their time and control their attention are likely to disproportionately reap the benefits of easy access to information and culture facilitated by the internet – and others are more likely to end up disengaged from their communities, engaging in flame wars on Facebook, and deciding not to vaccinate their children because of YouTube.
To be clear, I also don’t think it’s totally fair to “blame” social media per say for this bifurcation or this continued trend of decreasing social capital.
This was very clearly a trend that has been in place for decades.
That, however, doesn’t mean that new innovations aren’t integral to the continuation of that trendline.
Think of something like Moore’s Law: “the number of transistors on a circuit doubles every two years.” In order for the trend to continue, researchers and companies need to keep on innovating and keep on packing in those transistors. This isn’t some natural phenomenon that plods along indefinitely – and the rate of doubling has in fact slowed in recent years.
Similarly, the decline in social capital likely requires continued innovation that further facilitates people staying home feeling overwhelmed – and further disconnected from their communities.