Community: People or Place?

Is the fact that we don’t know leading us to create designer friendships?

When I moved 3,000 miles away to attend college, I quickly started to make friends. Most weren’t best friends overnight, of course, but it didn’t take long for me to have a life in New Jersey. Meanwhile, though, in my first semester I spent a great deal of time on AOL Instant Messenger (yup, this was 2003) chatting with friends from home.

By the time I hit my second semester, though, I realized it was more than I could handle to try to keep two lives going at once. My studies were suffering, and I was saying no too often to friends right in front of me in favor of the screen names of friends on my computer.

My duties were in tension. Was it shallow and disloyal to cast aside my old friends, or was it shallow and disloyal to pretend text on a screen was more important than Austin’s worried face three feet from me?

What was my community, and what were my obligations to it?

Live Where You Are: Loyalty to Place?

Eventually, I made a choice to cut back on the instant messaging time. I was able to focus more on what I had decided was my primary duty—building into the lives of people in the here and now. But it came at a cost; friends and even siblings back home felt hurt. Some took years to understand, let alone forgive, what looked to them like Lindsey Lohan in Mean Girls joining the Plastics.

This drama played itself out on a smaller level every summer. The college friends scattered. Some went dark, completely ignoring their college friends in favor of whatever they were doing back home (they still called it that), reemerging in September as though nothing had happened. Others found that life at “home” had passed them by, tried to keep up with the dorm mates, and felt hurt that their buddies didn’t care enough to call back.

Since college, I’ve lived in several other cities. Each time I moved, I faced the same tough situation. What do I owe my old friends from my past lives, and what do I owe my new home? What is home? How do I define it, when it’s so transient? Who gets priority, my old friends or my current friends? How should I handle old friends who choose a different answer to that question than I do (like when I’m always the one putting in the effort to keep the relationship on life support)?

I’m glad to report that the college-era drama of this subsides a bit over the years, especially once one gets married and isn’t a relational loose cannon. Sooner or later, people generally assume that spouses “settle down” and make a life where they are, and they should be allowed to focus mostly on where they are.

But the nature of this odd situation doesn’t change. With modern mobility, we move a lot. With modern technology, we have the ability to stay in touch with the people we leave behind. And as a society, we haven’t evolved a set of shared expectations for how people are supposed to handle this situation.

Community is Small: Loyalty to Group?

And evolving them would be highly difficult. How many friends do you have on Facebook? A few years ago, social network analysts did some studies and found that your real social network—i.e. the people you know in real life and interact with on something like a regular basis—was usually around 150 people. No matter what angle they tried, they kept coming to the same implied conclusion: most humans don’t seem to be able to handle more friends than that. Even when they extended the study to people’s Facebook networks, they reached almost exactly the same median number of friends.

Community, it seems, has to be small to be community. When politicians talk about your country as a community, or when your boss talks about the corporation (say Microsoft) as “the Microsoft community,” they’re talking nonsense. You can replicate some elements of community in a larger setting, like social norms (I’m betting you saw more than 150 Livestrong bracelets a few years back), or like a shared sense of identity (you’re more likely to consider somebody for a job if she went to your college). But you can’t get around the fact that if you can’t see where the group begins and ends, and know most of the people in it in a meaningful way, it’s not really community in any sense that matters. If social science is any indication, your brain just doesn’t know what to do with thousands of people; you can lump them together into a mass (“Germans,” or “Game of Thrones fans”) but you can’t know them as people.

In the past, this wasn’t something you had to think about. You probably lived in a small town your whole life, or at least in a coherent neighborhood within a city, and either way, everybody in your immediate physical environment was engaged in doing something together—living. I’m not romanticizing that; it was what it was.

Now, things are different. Technology has allowed us to transcend our natural limitations in this arena. But it hasn’t told us what to do once we’ve done so.

Not All of This is New: Loyalty to Precedence

What’s new here isn’t the mobility. Immigrants leave old lives behind. African literature is chock full of this stuff (try “The River Between by Ngugi”). Marriage in many Western cultures before “modernity” meant ditching your parents and moving on—even a few miles away was often a big change in social circles. The people who settled America, or the American west, were seeking “a new life.”

But that’s what’s different: a new life. You were leaving the old life behind, and there was usually an understanding that you were starting over from scratch. Today, while you’re not sharing a life, you are able to digitally watch the old social circles continue, and you’ve got no excuse technologically for why you don’t stay in touch. If you start completely ignoring an old friend, they’re liable to feel hurt.

Social media, as I’ve said elsewhere, evolved as a way of helping us cope with the realities of distance. Since a major part of group interaction is the ability to interact as a group, learning of news and events and opinions spontaneously rather than simply interacting one-to-one like I would on a phone call or the old instant messenger, social media allowed me to remain connected to my old communities in a digital replication of the face to face. But this creates its own set of problems as well; it creates the situation in which we find ourselves.

I’ve been on Facebook longer than most people, I’m pretty stingy about accepting friend requests, and I’ve still got 577 friends. Every time I moved to a new city, I accumulated a new set of a hundred or more Facebook friends, mirroring my real-life plugging in to a community of people. In real life, I saw the hundred with some kind of regularity. On Facebook, I saw the 577 every day. Facebook’s recent algorithm changes, designed to help cut through the clutter, filter those 577 so that I only regularly see the ones I interact with the most—creating a new, and distinct, digital community of the friends who are most entertaining, from all my lives combined.

So I’ll lose some sales and my boss won’t be happy,
but there’s only one thing on my mind
searching boxes underneath the counter,
on a chance that on a tape I’d find…
a song for someone who needs somewhere to long for.

Because I no longer know where home is.

–From “Homesick,” by Kings of Convenience

It seems I’m not the only one dealing with this. Sure enough, a more recent study has found that the average Facebook user has 338 friends now. Some of those users are probably just very social people, but most are probably like me, and they’ve accumulated 2-3 communities’ worth of friends over the course of living in those actual communities (new city, new church, new workplace, whatever).

What do we do with them? Where do our loyalties lie? To place? To people? Unless we are to cast aside all our old friends (which seems like a terrible idea to me), we’ve got a tension between the two. You’ve only got enough mental and emotional bandwidth for so many friends at so deep a level: how should you use it? There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. Old priorities that used to go together are now in conflict. Social tools like Facebook and LinkedIn make it easier to stay in touch, but they also increase the pressure to do so (as well as expanding the list of people with whom we might stay in touch). Immediacy, place, and the face to face are important factors—but do you allow your love of “localism” to lead you to ignore the guy who was best man in your wedding? The stalwart childhood friend who, though 2,000 miles away, makes you slightly uncomfortable by telling you she prays for you every night?

Designer Friendships: Loyalty to Favorites

As I hinted earlier, technology also creates a new possibility, unthinkable before the last decade but, I think, increasingly common now: that of curating your list of best friends from each community and connecting with a combination of the digital and real-life portions of this custom community. This allows you to withdraw from any real, cohesive community grounded in a place and its history; it allows you to shut out people you don’t like, and cherry-pick the interactions that please you and the advice that reinforces what you already think. It’s a digital-age version of the middle-school clique, socially acceptable for adults.

And it all adds up to some fascinatingly tough questions:

  • Does the term “socially acceptable” even mean anything any more? In a society marked by a partially digital, almost totally curated circle of friends, is it possible to have shared social expectations, manners, values? Or is it just about what’s trending?
  • What happens to the people who aren’t interesting enough to make other people’s past-life digital favorites lists? Comic Con? Or depression and suicide?
  • Is it really good for you to have such total say over your interactions? What about the value of suffering? Of diversity? What about when you’re forced into situations with people who are incapable of dealing with people who are different from them? And what are you supposed to do about it when even becoming a Luddite and moving to a farm in Kentucky involves a consequent curation of a set of habits and group of friends?
  • What will eventually happen to the places where we each live when none of us cares about them, since we’re only semi-attached to our physical locations?
  • Do communities require stabilizing forces to provide structure and make them last? What do we do when many of yesterday’s stabilizing structures seem inadequate to this situation?

And in one of the few ages when it’s even a question: what is community? Why does it matter? What uncomfortable parts of it are actually crucial to it? And what can we do, not simply to find it, but to create and sustain it?

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A huge thank-you to Give channel editor Ashley May for her help enriching this article. Thanks too to Joseph and Allison Postell for talking it through with me.

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