A phyle waiting to happen?
When I was a child, my mother had a single friend left from her college days, a fellow public school teacher in the Charlotte area. They talked by phone once a month, usually for an hour, and about every year-and-a-half we'd pack into the car and travel across state for a visit.
But my mother had no other college friends remaining. The same applied for any other phase of her life: everyone else melting to the wayside except one or two close compantions. She wasn't particularly unusual in this and for many years I never gave the matter much thought.
About two decades later, I arrived in New Orleans for a journalism convention, sharing a rickety rental van with five other Mountain Xpress staffers. By the time I hit the hotel bed, my schedule was almost full. Two friends I'd talked with extensively online wanted to meet for drinks, a parcel of other paper reporters wanted to swap ideas, and a high school friend I'd kept in touch with on Facebook suggested dinner.
I've written a blog that's received at best modest notice. I work for a local company that for all its innovation lacks any particularly wide network of influence and isn't a regular at convention events. While I love that job, I don't make a particularly large amount of money, and long-distance travel is a rarity.
I had no special connection to New Orleans. I'd never visited, didn't go to college there or have any family or institutional connections. I was a stranger, but one with almost every second outside the convention full before I set foot in the city, I had an impromptu, if temporary social circle on arrival.
When I got back to Asheville, I took a moment to catch up on anything I'd missed amid the whirlwind. Opening up Facebook and Twitter, it occurred to me that social circles from every phase of life were represented: those who had completely dropped off the radar were now the exception, not the rule.
By today's hyper standards, this is one of those slow changes: it takes time to build up worthwhile bonds, even online. But there it was, half a young lifetime full of connections that did not fade into the past when one era of life ended. For this generation, the circle is unbroken, and it's going to change a lot more than we realize.
“Twitter means never having to drink alone.” -various
People don't create technology, much less embrace it, in a vacuum: they put resources and time into something because it fulfills a need. New technology becomes popular because lots of other people feel the same need and think that something new tackles it better than what existed before.
Remember alienation? It was the watchword of the 20th century and a good part of the 19th. The modern era sheaved off the old extended families, then boiled them into nuclear ones as people moved en masse in a way the species had never seen before. The internal combustion engine and an increasing culture of individualism only amplified the change, finally breaking the default assumption over a whole swath of the earth that most people would remain where they were born.
But we're social animals, and the resulting upheaval broke patterns dating back to tribalism. Displaced people filled the cities, and everything from Blake's images of “dark, satanic mills” to Bowling Alone reflects our constant struggle to adapt to those changes.
It's not like previous generations sat still in the face of these disconnections; people never do. Instead, they formed structures that allowed one to keep some aspect of their social circles across distance and chaos. It's not a coincidence that the Freemasons (and similar organizations) sprang up around the same time, or that Chinese immigrants formed Tongs. Their elaborate signs, creeds, and mythology gave an individual an instant “in,” whether they'd come to a city looking for work or been conscripted for war.
Usually when people talk about the nation-state, they focus on the role of government, but this “nation of joiners,” the array of fraternal orders, churches, unions, improvement leagues, community organizations, business alliances, etc. form the real backbone of the old order: the way the average person remains invested in it socially. As they've declined, so has the status quo.
As a stop-gap, the combination of nuclear families, civic involvement and national identity worked, for awhile, to dilute alienation. Even in its dotage, it remains stronger than the nascent alternatives on many fronts.
But eventually these arrangements started to buckle under the weight of everything from rapid cultural change to economic upheaval. Alienation, never far below the surface, lept back, and people scurried to everything from raves to fundamentalism in their search for a new cure.
Viewed from this angle, social media has exploded to such cultural influence because it's a giant attempt to find an antidote to alienation. While rarely put in those terms, this is often how it's practically used, and one reason it's become increasingly pervasive.
Of course, there's the ensuing backlash (hi, Malcolm Gladwell), essentially asserting that the tools are inferior to older methods or are passing.
What the critics miss, even when they have legitimate individual points, is that people didn't just stop the old methods of socializing because they could also connect through a screen. Instead, people splice the new methods into their existing social circles. A good conversation on Twitter leads to a longer one in person; Facebook keeps people just enough in touch that few their old acquaintanes become complete strangers the way they used to if they moved away. If time or distance separates people, it's easier to pick right back up where they left off. If someone needs a favor or a couch to crash on, there are far more people that can help.
Growing up, I didn't particularly question the reasons why my family only had a few friends left from any given era of their life. Maintaining contact wasn't easy, after all: long distance phone calls cost money, letters took time, and travel was mostly out of the question. Remember the not-too-old term “jet set”? It's a product of the connection (especially frequent travel) required to remain a far-flung social circle being an elite privilege. But now more people can exert influence over a larger part of the population without the need for tremendous wealth.
Of course, some people don't use the newer technology and social circles still fracture. People still fall out or simply leave some they know behind, but the percentages are changing drastically as it gets easier to hang onto contacts, and over time that's going to make a difference in what the default social arrangements are. Facebook may fall, Twitter may collapse, Apple sink into the sea, but the need and the capability are here, so something will come along to fill the niche.
My particular generational splinter come of age with the internet in the late '90s, so we can still remember a time when things were different. Those ten years behind have had the capability to remotely cultivate social circles since childhood. Give it two more decades and this will form a taken-for-granted part of how large swaths of the population have lived their lives.
This also opens up an old pandora's box: for all the alienation the modern world serves up, the splitting of the tribe provided tremendous opportunity for individuals to reinvent themselves.
In classic “grass is greener” fashion, this particular benefit is often forgotten, because it did involve a genuine sacrifice of community that now looks more appealing in romanticized retrospect. But it's struck me more than once that online social circles function in very similar fashion to small towns, with insular infighting right alongside camaraderie.
Thing is, it's a lot harder to bolt a dispersed social net overlapping in both online and the material world than it is to drive outside town limits and never look back. Counteracting the smothering effect of increased connection is going to be a major cultural challenge in coming generations.
More people will also start straining Dunbar's number, hard, with steadily accumulating friends, acquaintances, contacts, etc. We're about to find out, on a massive scale, exactly how much society the human brain can take.
But by the time my generation starts to inch into their 40s, I expect that what we now consider scandal will carry a lot less stigma. People will generally care less if there are drunken pictures or angry rants from someone's 20s because a lot more people will have those particular skeletons out of the closet. The resulting culture may be coarser, but it will likely end up a lot more honest about the realities of life.
The real kicker is the fact that these tools open up ways of organizing ourselves that were barely dreamt of in my childhood.
These aren't here yet — again, it takes considerable time to build lasting social forms — but the ferment is there.
The closest example I can find in the past are organizations like the aforementioned Tongs, which managed to exert influence across borders by appealing to similarities in background while offering an immediate circle (with the attendant assistance) to newcomers.
I doubt most new forms will have quite the same level of stricture, but people ally with others based on common causes, and when more people keep more contacts, in more areas, the possibilities increase.
While Occupy's activists (to take one recent example) were hampered with a moribund consensus system, this social toolbox has allowed them to consolidate contacts across the globe around a similar ethos and symbolism. The resulting real-world action ranged from often haphazard to intermittently impressive, but there was action, along with a developing network to play it back, shore up social ties, and try to bring in new people. That's happening not just on the left, and not just with politics, similar developments in new ways to bind smaller social circles together have been building for years in other subcultures.
Still, these forms are in their infancy (and readers, if you have others that deserve more notice please send them). It's going to be a long time, with many mutations, before they build up enough lasting power to seriously eclipse what came before.
But it will happen, because the building blocks have become multi-faceted and basic enough for increasing numbers of people to use. We're an adaptable bunch, after all, and from huddling around fires to checking our phones, we always find some new defense against facing the world alone.