Christopher Mims over at the Technology Review revisits a recent study of our social networks, both real-world and online. It’s startling to see the growth in our social isolation despite the corresponding growth in technologies that increase our ability to communicate and interact with one another. Is the suburbanization of our species to blame, and can Facebook save us?
[div class=attrib]From Technology Review:[end-div]
In 2009, the Pew Internet Trust published a survey worth resurfacing for what it says about the significance of Facebook. The study was inspired by earlier research that “argued that since 1985 Americans have become more socially isolated, the size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased.”
In particular, the study found that Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and from voluntary associations. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears suggest that new technologies, such as the internet and mobile phone, may play a role in advancing this trend.
If you read through all the results from Pew’s survey, you’ll discover two surprising things:
1. “Use of newer information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the internet and mobile phones, is not the social change responsible for the restructuring of Americans’ core networks. We found that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.”
2. However, Americans on the whole are more isolated than they were in 1985. “The average size of Americans’ core discussion networks has declined since 1985; the mean network size has dropped by about one-third or a loss of approximately one confidant.” In addition, “The diversity of core discussion networks has markedly declined; discussion networks are less likely to contain non-kin – that is, people who are not relatives by blood or marriage.”
In other words, the technologies that have isolated Americans are anything but informational. It’s not hard to imagine what they are, as there’s been plenty of research on the subject. These technologies are the automobile, sprawl and suburbia. We know that neighborhoods that aren’t walkable decrease the number of our social connections and increase obesity. We know that commutes make us miserable, and that time spent in an automobile affects everything from our home life to our level of anxiety and depression.
Indirect evidence for this can be found in the demonstrated preferences of Millenials, who are opting for cell phones over automobiles and who would rather live in the urban cores their parents abandoned, ride mass transit and in all other respects physically re-integrate themselves with the sort of village life that is possible only in the most walkable portions of cities.
Meanwhile, it’s worth contemplating one of the primary factors that drove Facebook’s adoption by (soon) 1 billion people: Loneliness. Americans have less support than ever — one in eight in the Pew survey reported having no “discussion confidants.”
It’s clear that for all our fears about the ability of our mobile devices to isolate us in public, the primary way they’re actually used is for connection.
[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]
[div class=attrib]Image: Typical suburban landscape. Courtesy of Treehugger.[end-div]