The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted…
When Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” in 1995, he predicted the rise of electronic social networking—he just didn’t quite know what to make of it. “What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital?” Putnam asked, calling for more empirical studies. Yet, Putnam surely could not have foreseen the total domination of digital media over community building, business, and politics. Activities that once brought people into physical contact and fostered deep social bonds now happen online. Social media simultaneously delivers information to consumers and simulates civic engagement. Putnam’s lament, that Americans continue to participate in certain activities, albeit minus an element of meaningful social interaction, describes our contemporary, digital dilemma well. People are bowling, but not in leagues; playing cribbage, but not in person; holding business meetings, but over Skype; tweeting, but tweeting alone. In fact, one prominent criticism of “Bowling Alone,” Michael W. Foley and Bob Edwards’s “The Paradox of Civil Society,” notes that Putnam’s analysis can be applied to any number of historical periods. Where Putnam lays partial blame on television, Foley and Edwards claim that radio precipitated the same phenomenon decades earlier. Is Putnam’s thesis too general? More diffuse patterns of information distribution, and the accompanying changes in leisure time, may be especially evident in our current technology climate, but they are not unprecedented. The erosion of family ties, community networks, and ‘deep sociability’ is a transhistorical trend. Still, it seems as though the trend line is tilting upwards. The rate of desocialization is accelerating.
That is not to say that the net volume of socialization is decreasing. Putnam recognized the explosion of new types of clubs and associations that had supplanted the more archaic bowling league formulation:
The bond between any two members of the Sierra Club is less like the bond between any two members of a gardening club and more like the bond between any two Red Sox fans (or perhaps any two devoted Honda owners): they root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another.
Furthermore, the question is not about the apparent quality of social interaction—or how meaningful citizens feel that civic engagement and social participation are—but about the real quality of social interaction—how meaningful civic engagement and social participation are for citizens. Of course, the real meaningfulness of sociability is impossible to measure; definitions of ‘meaningfulness’ are the shadow puppets of ulterior motives and misleading ideologies. Deep sociability, or what Putnam refers to via botanical metaphor—putting down roots—follows from an aversion to narcissistic, self-promotional, and unfortunately politicized forms of personal media. We tweet at people, not with people. Our Facebook groups look like the advertisements of slick businesses, not community centers or the homes of friends. Our LinkedIn accounts are holographic resumes, not warm handshakes. Social media is not necessarily oppositional to deep sociability, but it is easier, simpler, less time consuming, and leads to more immediate gratification. For Putnam, the “technological transformation of leisure” leads to wider and shallower networks. Ideally, social media could promote the propagation of wide and deep root systems. In reality, most social networks merely dip into the topsoil.
While social media may not be a wholly satisfying substitute for civic engagement, it may counteract other technologies that have intensified social erosion. The intrinsic interactivity of social media is fundamentally different from isolated, self-contained pockets of televised entertainment. So once social media supplements or enhances deep sociability—when sustained real life contact evolves from virtual interaction—we will begin enriching the soil, not stripping it from around our own feet. One startup that hopes for a positive transformation of leisure, Nextdoor, responds to Putnam’s lament with uncanny directness. Putnam fears the decline of neighborliness and the rise of displaced social activity—friendships stretched outside local communities. Positioned against the displacement of sociability, Nextdoor is a social network designed for neighborhood living. To join, potential members need to verify their address, and the company is deeply invested in the privacy of their clients. Only fellow neighbors can view each other’s information. In the near future, Nextdoor will announce a partnership with National Night Out, an initiative that builds neighborhood solidarity against crime, GigaOM reports. The closeness and privacy of a Nextdoor network epitomize deep sociability. From the Nextdoor manifesto: “We’re all about online chats that lead to more clothesline chats.” Nextdoor rechannels the diffuse connectivity of digital social networking into narrower fields of interaction.
My optimism notwithstanding, there is something vaguely creepy and retrogressive about the Nextdoor manifesto. It expresses a not uncommon desire for idyllic, homogenous suburbia. ‘Ward Cleaver shared a link on your timeline.’ Nextdoor’s anti-crime rhetoric valorizes surveillance practices that can be described in no other terms than repressive, oppressive, and Foucaultian. Neighborhood watch indeed. The Nextdoor manifesto recalls George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s model of community policing, most famously outlined in their 1982 article “Broken Windows.” Kelling and Wilson advocate for the integration of police logic into everyday living and the infiltration of police agents into communities; however, Kelling and Wilson discuss the adoption of police technology in urban contexts, where the concern is fostering self-sustaining, internal structures of social regulation. Nextdoor prescribes the same system for a suburban context, where historically, the concern has been regulating and preserving insularity. Think white flight. The idea of suburbia itself polices the borders between insiders and outsiders, while Kelling and Wilson’s urban policing aims for the auto-repair and maintenance of social life and physical space, something like what Nigel Thrift describes in “But Malice Aforethought: Cities and the Natural History of Hatred.” Thrift indicts suburban domesticity and Putnam’s neighborliness as “organized on military lines” that “produce and channel a surplus enmity which cannot easily be satisfied but tends to reveal itself in petty acts of cruelty, as well as actual violence.” When the structures of the suburbs are reintroduced in urban spaces, the misanthropy that emerges around close quarters assumes a more malicious guise.
Last Monday, I saw The Pruitt-Igoe Myth at BAM. Pruitt-Igoe was a massive public housing project in St. Louis, occupied initially in 1954, that quickly deteriorated. I grew up in the St. Louis suburbs, and Pruitt-Igoe was a taboo topic, never discussed in a public school setting or in the community. Demolished in 1972, the development took up 57 acres. That space is empty; Pruitt-Igoe has been razed in history and memory. Barely any visible scar tissue remains. Mature trees grow over old wounds. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is a documentary that probes the project’s failure. Among the film’s explanations for the disaster, the negative effect of modern architecture on social behavior, a poor post-war economy, and onerous federal regulations strike me as the most persuasive. Even as the 11-story high rises brought people into close proximity, the inadequate maintenance of infrastructure and poor controls on building entry policy facilitated criminal activity. Tightly knit communities formed within the buildings, but the intersection of social, economic, and bureaucratic implosion made total system failure inevitable.
Critics frequently cite the disciplinary and punitive instruments at play in Pruitt-Igoe as an example of a unique urban pathology. Families that accepted certain kinds of welfare could not have an unemployed male living in the apartment. Forced to decide between an income lower than a welfare check and leaving, many fathers chose the latter, either abandoning their children or evading the surveillance of housing authorities. Patrols entered apartments searching for fathers on the run (not from their dependents, but from the government!) and for contraband. Recipients of welfare were prohibited from owning televisions and telephones. It seems to me, however, that the bureaucratic and police practices in Pruitt-Igoe, often deemed moralistic and Puritanical, are present in the suburbs, too, invisible and rarely recognized. But in the suburbs, these practices of social control are organic. They are not out of place, awkward, or strange. They are the consequence of ideologies buried in the basements of everyday experience, the perverse logics that negotiate between individuality and conformity, asceticism and hedonism, and sincerity and theatricality. The logic of the suburbs, which is the logic of the police, migrates like a bit of code tagged on to every affirmation of value and value-affirming activity. Consequently, the deployment of social control in Pruitt-Igoe seems unnatural because it is an invasive species, an alien import reintroduced from the communities fleeing the (post)industrial city.
Nextdoor is the next step in suburban sociability: whether one considers that a step forward, backward, or sideways depends on one’s ideological leanings. Likewise, whether one prefers deep sociability or wide and shallow networks reflects core political attitudes. Whatever the case, social media is not enough to stand in for civic engagement. Civic engagement implies a real life interaction and a sense of sociability that refuses quantification or statistical analysis. But we would be remiss to presuppose that all civic engagement is alike. Civic engagement covers a broad spectrum of different activities ranging from attending KKK meeting to going over to a neighbor and telling him that you’ve been watching his yard pile up with leaves, and if he wants to try out your new leaf blower that’s a-ok, or attending a fish fry where you gossip with Aunt Mabel about Judy’s ex-boyfriend. Given those two suppositions—that social media is not civic engagement and that civic engagement is inclusive of many activities—we are forced to ask, regarding social media that tries to stimulate or even simulate civic engagement, what type of civic engagement is being targeted for replication. Both Putnam and social media startups assume that a certain form of civic engagement is ‘good’ and beneficial to community life. I do not take that assumption for granted. If we are to encourage more meaningful and pervasive participation in collective social action, new digital environments, like Nextdoor, will be necessary to counteract social erosion. Nevertheless, the organizing fantasies of those environments are yet to be determined. We still have time to set down roots in the virtual neighborhood of our choosing, at least before market economics make that choice for us.