Scrolling Alone

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone was one of those high brow academic-ish books that, for a few months at least, made the leap to coffee and bedside tables across America, bringing a simple thesis that Americans had dropped out of the traditional social organizations that served, directly and indirectly, as the bedrock of civic life. It was a great read and made a compelling argument.

It was the book that introduced me, then still a grad student, to the concept of social capital to me. It had lots of stylized facts and broad theories, and was seemingly comfortable being at war with itself when the facts didn’t play nice. For a simple run down (and it’s been more than 10 years since I read the book, so take the accuracy here with a grain of salt)

  • Americans bowled more than they used to, but were less frequently members of leagues.
  • Americans didn’t join new associations when they moved to new towns, but they also moved towns less than they used to.
  • We worked a lot more, so there was less social-leisure time to dedicate to local associations.
  • Political and activist groups had sacrificed in-person meetings and local cohesion for greater national scale

You get the idea. Pushing his logic, Americans had become solitary households, islands held together less by social identities than work affiliations. The book, published in 2000, arrived while the internet was still in a pre-social media, pre-smart phone construct, but essentially warned that the growing dearth of social capital would undermine civic engagement and eventually democracy.

It might seem odd, but I think picking up (and picking on) a 20-year old book gives some insight into what we are frequently overlooking today.

  1. Bowling alleys are not filled with loners. They are filled with groups of friends bowling together. What changed wasn’t interest in social activities, it was how we schedule our lives. Work may be both more flexible for many of us, but also less predictable in the hours we work, and with (perhaps) more total hours. Combined with the predominance of two-earner households, its just that much harder for a casual bowler to lock down 2.5 hours every week for a league obligation. Remember, total bowlers increased– they didn’t actually start bowling alone, they just did it on their own schedule.

This a good thing to remember when we’re wringing our hands over the latest thing that the current generation is destroying (television, movies, cereal) or, ahem, abstaining from. What looks like the end of something central to human existence is more often than not just a refitting to new economic incentives and constraints. Humans are clever and we are well-advised not to mistake basic adaptation and re-optimization for massive generational divides.

2. We don’t need to make new friends as much when we move to new towns because we can actually stay friends with people in our old town.

When you moved to a new state, or even a new town in your state, that used to mean going years or decades without seeing or hearing from old acquaintances. That is not the case anymore. Between twitter, instagram, facebook, and zoom, I am in regular contact with people scattered both geographically and temporally (autobiographically?) from my life. Some fall in and out of touch, much the way they would if we lived down the street from each other, but the point is that there isn’t the same pressure to find local social institutions to rebuild a social network from scratch like there use to be.

I’m not sure this a good thing, by the way. I think it has removed important sources of noise and variation in our social networks. I think it was made them far too centered on the groups we formed during schooling, leading to homogeneity within networks and distrust across educational strata. But it doesn’t mean we are alone, but it does mean that shape of our social lives have changed in important ways.

3. Political activism as a source of social identity remains strong. But does it bring community or just conformity?

The clubs or group-identities that dominate our life are relatively unchanged: religion, politics, profession, ethnicity, sports, etc. But the manner in which those social groups cultivate identities has changed. As Putnam noted, politics has become considerably less local, a trend exacerbated by the rise of social media as a tool not just for promoting an identity, but for regulating that identity and assigning status within it.

There is no shortage of people that have noted the rising pressures to conform within groups. This is where I think Putnam’s original thesis has some unexpected bite: I don’t think our social capital has eroded, but it has become a lot less local. It is subject to standards less tailored to your currently lived experience. Further, as any good Orwellian knows, the rewards to successfully identifying in-group traitors and purging them scales with network size. With social media technology exponentially scaling the number of people monitoring us, it has brought with it tremendous pressure to conform. If the nuclear families in the small town 1950s lived in terror of what will the neighbors think, consider the pressure that extremely online millennial professionals are under. One mistake and a lifetime’s social capital can go poof as the hordes move in to shame, excommunicate, and (occupationally) terminate.

If you’re wondering why there seems to be so much in-group signaling on twitter, so much group think and obviously disingenuous mutual affirmation of seemingly ludicrous affronts against common sense and empirical reality, and so much viciousness, just remember what’s at stake. I tend to fall back on a simple model of human utility functions:

Utility = Stuff x Friends

What’s important is that it’s multiplicative, which means loneliness is deadly. In the modern world, our associations are in many ways less robust than previously – one false move and you’re being pushed out on an ice float. Maybe that’s why we should all join a sports league or a religious organization, why we should start volunteering twice a month at the YMCA, join the Rotary Club, help register people to vote. Because its great that you still have your old tribe, but it’s always nice to have a backup plan. A last resort. A set of associations you can keep in a glass box to “Break in Case of Purging”.


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