If we truly seek to solve the problem of diminished community and isolation, we are not going to be able to fill that void with thousands of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. That void can only be filled by a recommitment to the principles of authentic friendship that are best built in person with those in our local communities.

In his recent book A Time to Build, Yuval Levin wrote about the insidious destruction of institutions and the simultaneous increase in isolation. As a corrective to these tendencies, Mr. Levin suggested, “What we are missing, although we too rarely put it this way, is not simply connectedness but a structure of social life: a way to give shape, place, and purpose to the things we do together.” This is reminiscent of past definitions offered by conservative icons like Russell Kirk who wrote in his Concise Guide to Conservatism, “Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy. Conservatives are not selfish, but public-spirited.” Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option, pins the loss of community on the decline of Christianity, and he contends, “When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders. We are adrift in liquid modernity, with no direction home.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer also emphasized the centrality of Christianity for the existence of true community in his treatise, Life Together. Without institutions to bring people together, the foundations of our cities and towns are crumbling out from under our collective feet.

At the same time, we find ourselves more connected to people than ever before. Recently, when we found ourselves forced to be apart and in quarantine, TechCrunch reports, “In the past month [April 2020], more than 3 billion internet users logged onto a Facebook service, including its central app, Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp, Zuckerberg disclosed. This number constitutes roughly two-thirds of the world’s total internet users. This was a record for the platform, which reported average monthly active users of 2.60 billion in Q1.”[1] It is remarkable that a majority of the Internet users in the world logged onto one website during the course of one month. Consider in 2019, long before the quarantine, Twitter, even though it was far behind Facebook’s 1.2 billion at the time, had 126 million average daily users as well according to The Washington Post.[2] Perhaps physical separation has been encouraging us to go online and utilize social networking websites more often, but these traffic totals are nothing new and have been increasing for years.

How can these same factors be true at the same time? We desire community, yet we are connected to thousands of people on a daily basis. The conclusion may seem to be blatantly obvious, but it seems quite clear that just connecting to people online and being able to see into the very small portion of their lives that they present on social media is far from sufficient to build community. For as much as Mark Zuckerberg might want to talk about creating a global community through Facebook, it simply cannot be done.[3] In fact, I would contend that our increasing reliance on social media as a substitutionary community is like a placebo. We think that it is going to fulfill our longing for community, but it ends up leaving us just as empty as when we started.

I remember my first day at work after I graduated college. I went into the office, and I didn’t know anyone. As I was sitting in our rather crowded lunchroom on that first day, I got to know some of my coworkers, and they got to know me. We talked about where we were from, where I went to college, how long they had been with the company, and the names and ages of their children. It was a pretty typical first day conversation, but it made me feel like I was part of a small community. I knew my coworkers socially at that point, but our conversations were extraordinarily surface level. We certainly did not talk about anything that was even remotely controversial on that day.

There is nothing wrong with that acquaintance level of conversation. My coworkers and I were getting to know each other, and it would seem awkward to talk about our darkest fears and deepest desires when we had just met five minutes earlier. That being said, I have worked with some of my coworkers for over seven years now, and I am glad to say that we have developed a level of trust where we can talk about more serious topics and share more of our lives with each other. We are still coworkers, so there is not a familial level of intimacy, but I am much more comfortable sharing things with my coworkers than I was when I met some of them on that first day. We have grown closer as we have spent time together, and our relationship has evolved to a deeper place than it was originally.

Historically, this is how communities developed. In his book, The Art of Community, Charles H. Vogl defines a community as “a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.” As we spend more time with people, we begin to care more about their welfare. They become more than acquaintances; they become friends. Consider the early church in the book of Acts. They were brought together on Pentecost, but by the end of that chapter in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Not only that, but two verses later, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” As they spent more time together, they became closer and stronger. They did not start sharing their possessions immediately and watching out for each other’s welfare though. That is the key point. That level of deeper intimacy came after the miraculous experience of Pentecost and time spent together. They got acquainted, and then they grew toward a more serious level of commitment to each other. Granted, their community came together very quickly compared to my experience with my coworkers, but the sequence of events was the same.

Consider the alternate experience on popular social media platforms. Many people will put their most closely held religious, political, or personal views on these sites. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, these platforms are meant for sharing with others, and Facebook’s status bar even provocatively asks, “What’s on your mind?” Often times, the things that we hold closest to our hearts are indeed on our minds. Even though 46% of people are “worn out” by political posts and discussions on social media platforms according to Pew Research, they also report that 39% of users on Twitter tweeted at least once about national politics in the one-year period around the 2018 midterm elections.[4] Even though many are tired of political conversations, a very significant portion, a sizable enough group that will show up on nearly all streams or feeds in one fashion or another, are still putting their views on these very sensitive topics forward to their social media friends.

I specifically use the term social media friends because these are not the types of friends that you eat lunch with every day at work or worship with every Sunday. These might be people that you knew in high school, acquaintances from college, or even friends of your children. While these circles of friendship can overlap, very few people can honestly say that they have any significant level of intimacy with the majority of the people on their friends or followers list. In a 2016 study, Oxford University psychology professor Robin Dunbar discovered, “Friendships, in particular, have a natural decay rate in the absence of contact, and social media may well function to slow down the rate of decay. However, that alone may not be sufficient to prevent friendships eventually dying naturally if they are not occasionally reinforced by face-to-face interaction.”[5] There is a fundamental difference between in person friendships and social media friendships. If your only interaction with someone is electronic, your friendship is much more likely to decay. This is not a universal rule, of course, and I have many very dear friends I have never met in person, but the data does seem to reinforce what we all understand to be true. Friendships that are 100% virtual take a lot more work to maintain and are also more likely to crumble. We do not share the same level of intimacy, in general, with the people to whom we are connected virtually.

Social media, therefore, creates a scenario where many of us are sharing our own or being exposed to someone else’s deepest personal thoughts, and we are doing this with people whom we oftentimes hardly know. We are skipping over all of the steps of friendship development that have traditionally led to the place where we are comfortable sharing our more sensitive thoughts with other people. Just like there is an order in the universe, there is an order in the way that relationships are built. It has been tried for millennia, and friendships rarely began at points of contention. Rather, friendships develop through surface-level commonalities. As the relationship grows deeper, the friendship becomes more resilient. That strength allows the friendship to weather those storms of disagreement. Sometimes friendships still end, and that is natural, but it is far less likely when there is a foundation established first.

How do we build these relationships that stick? In our age of electronic connection, how do we push back against this trend and return to the traditional way of creating relationships?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is to start with your local community. Find a way to be involved with the people around you. This might be in your church, parent-teacher organization, or another local voluntary association. Meet people face-to-face, learn about their kids and what they do for a job. Have a barbecue and invite your neighbors over for a night of relaxation. These friendships might move into the virtual realm as well. There is nothing wrong with seeing each other’s Facebook profiles, but we seem to become more tolerant of people whom we actually know or are at least more considerate of our feelings toward them. In recent research conducted around the 2018 midterm elections, Comparitech discovered that people were more likely to self-censor their own political posts by hiding them from friends as opposed to acquaintances, but they were far more likely to unfriend acquaintances than friends over political posts.[6] This exposes two very important truths. We typically don’t want to hurt our friends, and we are more likely to cut ties with acquaintances we do not know very well. Friendship provides a layer of stickiness that keeps us together, and when we have minimal investment in other people, we have no problem cutting them out of our community. Of course, this reinforces the basic definition of community presented by Mr. Vogl. Our friends are part of our community; we look out for their well-being, and sometimes that means not fighting with them unnecessarily. Our acquaintances are not part of our community, and we do not find it as difficult to break fellowship with them. We care more about our friends, and as Dunbar discovered, friendships remain stronger through personal contact than virtual. That is the first step to building better connections. We have to realize that social networks are not a replacement for in-person networks. They serve a purpose, but they cannot be a substitute for these truly human relationships.

Notice that this is not meant to be a denial of the usefulness of social media or a diminishment of friends I have online that I have never met in person. I am so grateful to see the things that my friends and family post. I get to see photos of their lives, and I can celebrate the good times along with them. There are even people that I can discuss difficult topics with in a thought-provoking and beneficial manner. I don’t deny that good conversation can happen on social media in certain contexts. However, some of the best social media friendships I have are with people I am already friends with. Social media enhances our friendship by allowing us to connect in additional ways and at additional times when we might not be able to see each other face-to-face, but the foundation of our friendship is almost always rooted on something else beyond our Facebook friendship or reciprocal Twitter follows.

Second, we need to return to the traditional conservative principle of subsidiarity in our relationships. As Kirk rightfully pointed out in his essay, “Eigg, in the Hebrides,” “Subsidies, social planning from above, and any amount of condescending pity cannot fill the void left when the true spirit of local association has been starved to death.” It is not enough to simply join these local associations, but we need to truly embrace the goodness of local control. We need to reject the spirit of our narcissistic and voyeuristic age that tells us that our lives need to be perfectly on display and the lives of everyone else must be open to our peeping. As subsidiarity stresses that decisions must be made at the most local, yet still competent, level as possible, by and large, our lives should be answerable those voices nearest to us. Typically, that means that our views should matter to those who are closest to us, and we ought to be answerable to that audience. Our community is made up of our friends, those with whom we share mutual concern. When I ask someone for advice about a major life decision, it begins with an audience of One as a Christian. Then the circle expands to my family and closest friends. The proportion to which someone’s opinion ought to matter to me increases in direct proportion to their proximity to my inner circle. On social media, we worry about how we look to thousands of people we are barely acquainted with, and we lose perspective on how very little their opinion of us actually ought to matter. Just like the concept of subsidiarity, we need to get back to the importance of locality and proximity in relationships.

Third, we need to rededicate ourselves to community as important instead of inconvenient. It might be easier to get home after work and start binging Netflix. However, if we recognize the importance of true community, we will realize that it takes work. I have been part of a young adult Bible study for approximately seven years. Over that time, we have consistently met one night per week to study God’s word together. On snowy winter nights, it is not always easy to come out. You don’t always feel like going out in the cold, but by and large, we do it because we are committed to each other. Consider the prophetic words of Patrick Deneen in his work, Why Liberalism Failed, “The breakdown of family, community, and religious norms and institutions, especially among those benefiting least from liberalism’s advance, has not led liberalism’s discontents to seek a restoration of those norms. That would take effort and sacrifice in a culture that now diminishes the value of both.” Building community takes effort and sacrifice. You have to give your time and open up your heart to build community. It is not always easy to invest your time into the welfare of another person. However, if community matters, then these sacrifices are vital. We must resist the temptation to sacrifice them at the idol of self-centeredness that we build in our own image.

We desire community, we find ourselves connected to others more than ever before in history, but the connections that we find ourselves building are not enough to sustain friendships or communities. We are starting from a faulty premise. Social media friendships encourage us to encounter acquaintances in a way that is entirely different than how humans have historically built up levels of trust before engaging on difficult topics. Conversations that were normally reserved for close friends around a fire are now conducted with people who are hardly closer than strangers, and the results have not been encouraging. We find ourselves with relationships that lack depth and therefore fail to stick. Without friendship, we end up with an epidemic of loneliness. NPR reported that three out of the five Americans are lonely.[7] We must be concerned; lives are literally at stake.[8]

I have suggested that three ways to combat this tendency are to focus locally, practice subsidiarity in our relationships, and rededicate ourselves to the importance of community itself instead of viewing it as inconvenient. These concepts are not revolutionary. As Dr. Deneen summarized from Robert Nisbet’s classic, The Quest for Community, “Our ‘community’ was now to consist of countless fellow humans who shared an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation, and isolation.” While Nisbet was talking about the danger of statism and perhaps could have never predicted the universal rise of social media as an integral part of human existence, this summation of his view could apply to social media as easily as it applies to political allegiance to the state. Through catering to our self-promotional narcissism, it is easy for us to pledge allegiance to the creed of social media. Once we have embraced that statement of faith, we are promised that the global community will swoop in and make us feel better. Instead, we find a community of acquaintances ready to tear down those who transgress their self-defined boundaries of acceptability.

It is easy to demean an acquaintance, but it is more difficult to crush a friend. We might debate and discuss; those things are constructive when they are done with those with whom we seek to cultivate understanding. Pursuing knowledge is best done in community, and community is built by those who seek each other’s well-being. If we truly seek to solve the problem of diminished community and isolation, we are not going to be able to fill that void with thousands of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. That void can only be filled by a recommitment to the principles of authentic friendship that are best built in person with those in our local communities. We can achieve the intimacy that is required to discuss difficult topics if we are dedicated to this model, and those discussions will be all the more fruitful because of our mutual commitment to each other’s welfare. This might be countercultural, but as Mr. Dreher wrote in The Benedict Option, “If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order.” This especially applies to our relationships.

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Notes:

[1] Lucas Matney, “The lockdown in driving people to Facebook,” TechCrunch (April 2020).

[2] Hamza Shaban, “Twitter reveals its daily active user numbers for the first time,” The Washington Post (February 2019).

[3] See Mark Zuckerberg’s “Building Global Community” (February 2017).

[4] See “46% of U.S. social media users say they are ‘worn out’ by political posts and discussions” by Monica Anderson and Dennis Quinn, and “National Politics on Twitter: Small Share of U.S. Adults Produce Majority of Tweets.”

[5] R.I.M. Dunbar, “Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks?The Royal Society (January 2016).

[6] Paul Bischoff, “Posting About Politics? – 44.6% of People Find You’re Annoying,” Comparitech (April 2019).

[7] Elena Renken, “Most Americans Are Lonely, And Our Workplace Culture May Not Be Helping,” NPR (January 2020).

[8] See “Loneliness in relation to suicide ideation and parasuicide: a population – wide study” by A. Stravynski and R. Boyer (2001).

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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