Opinion | America alone

Opinion by Seamus Allen
Dec. 27, 2022, 11:43 a.m.

It is all-too-often remarked that we live in an era of unprecedented interconnectedness. Online communities for virtually any interest or hobby are easily accessible. Audiences of hundreds or thousands are in our pockets. No matter where in the world we are, our friends and even our distant relations are just a few taps away.

But the era we live in feels like anything but one of connection. Instead, we’re lonelier than we’ve ever been. Even before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of American adults reported feeling lonely “often” or “always,” and the number of people who say they have zero close friends has quadrupled from just 3% in 1990 to 12% (more than one-in-10) in 2021.

Between dorms, classes and clubs, Stanford is likely one of the places in the country least affected by this epidemic of loneliness. And yet, there is still the pervasive sense that something is missing, that our dining halls shouldn’t have quite so many people eating two seats apart.

Something has gone very, very wrong.

Warning signs

The first person to sound the alarm about this era of disconnection was Robert Putnam, in his landmark 1995 paper and subsequent 2000 book, “Bowling Alone. Putnam describes not just an epidemic of loneliness, but a fundamental deterioration of what he identifies as “social capital,” the bonds of trust and mutual altruism formed between communities of people. Putnam observes declines in seven different indicators of our social capital, such as civic participation, social trust and the abundance of informal social networks. In other words, our social fabric itself seems to be fraying.

Since the publication of “Bowling Alone” at the start of the millennium, the picture hasn’t gotten any better. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2020, nearly half of Americans said most people were trustworthy in 1970. That figure has since dropped to just one-third, making us the only established democracy where social trust has declined over the past half-century. Meanwhile, political polarization has reached a fever pitch as our collective mental health has continued to deteriorate. (Both of these are linked to the decline of social capital — more on that later.) Somehow, disconnection became the quintessential sensation of our time. And it didn’t occur overnight. Rather, it is the result of a systemic deterioration — the disappearance of community.

Where it all went wrong

An explanation for how our communities are disappearing — and why — is laid out in social scientist Marc Dunkelman’s 2014 book, “The Vanishing Neighbor.” There, he describes three types of social relationships: inner-ring, middle-ring and outer-ring. The people we form inner-ring relationships with are our confidants. They are often our closest friends, family members and romantic partners. Middle-ring relationships are our community: classmates, fellow congregants, coworkers, fellow members of civic organizations and the like. They are the people with whom we are friendly, but not intimate. Finally, our outer-ring relationships are our acquaintances: people we might recognize, but don’t know much about. The clerk at the local grocery store, for example, or a distant relation on Facebook. The most dramatic and yet largely unnoticed sociological trend of the past three decades, Dunkelman argues, is the collapse of the middle ring.

The first factor driving the middle ring’s collapse is a decline in our opportunities to form middle-ring relationships. The rise of American car culture has created vast distances between people’s homes, places of work and places of relaxation, diminishing the chance encounters and sense of community that might otherwise emerge within a small town, neighborhood or city block. Instead of striking up a conversation on the street, we wave through our car window. Rather than browse around the local shops or walk down Main Street, we drive to Walmart or Costco. What was once social has become industrial. Digital. Standardized.

Had Dunkelman written “The Vanishing Neighbor” in 2022, he might note that with the rise of remote work and online retail, we increasingly don’t go anywhere at all. The result? We’ve begun to think of our cities and towns as places we live in, rather than places we’re a part of. And so our middle-ring relationships begin to vanish.

But even if we stopped finding local communities organically, we might still find community intentionally, through organizations. Yet some of the organizations best positioned to fill such a role — local churches — are disappearing too. In the process, we’re losing the community networks, rites of passage and interdependence churches serve to create. As an atheist, I’m not concerned with the disappearance of churches themselves. Rather, I’m frightened that we’ve neglected to replace them with anything at all.

To truly put the nail in the coffin, at the same time as car culture and declining church attendance have diminished our opportunities to form middle-ring relationships, the digital era has taken our attention away from those middle-ring relationships we do have.

For one thing, we’re constantly connected to more strangers and acquaintances than we’ve ever been. But the interactions we have on social media rarely blossom into community or friendship. The political argument we have with some random person on Twitter rarely turns into a better understanding of the other person the way a political conversation with a real human might. Similarly, the vacation photo we post on Instagram is far less likely to foment any real connection than telling the story to people in the same room.

But social media isn’t solely to blame. Perplexingly, in the midst of this era of loneliness, those of us who do have friends report more frequent interactions with them. Perhaps this is because when a spouse leaves the home for the day, they don’t remain out of touch with their partner until they return. Instead, they may text or even talk throughout the day. The same thing happens with our friends: they’re never more than a few button taps away.

This is, in principle, a good thing. The problem is that our social attention is a limited resource. When we spend more time on the friends we have, we pay less attention to our community and spend less time looking for friends in the new places we find ourselves in. In the long run, this rarely works out for us: friends don’t always last forever, and when we go looking for new people, we increasingly find ourselves with no community to look for them within.

Estimates for the time required to make a new friend hover around 50 hours, which makes simply going up to an acquaintance and attempting to befriend them a daunting task. What are you going to do? Schedule weekly lunches for an entire year? This is why so many of our friends come from our communities. Groups of people hanging out together for some other purpose offer the perfect “incubation zone” in which friendships can form. As community vanishes, the foundation is pulled out from underneath our ability to make new friends, and we’re left ever more alone.

All that said, none of the obstacles we’ve discussed are so salient that creating community in spite of them is impossible. Clubs are still abundant at Stanford. Civic organizations and community groups are still around in local communities, if you know where to look. Some new forms of community have even emerged: online groups formed around hobbies, fandoms or social media content creators. But by and large, these networks have moved out into our third ring, their members our acquaintances rather than our friends. In the process, they’ve lost their ability to support us in the ways that aren’t easy, to make us less alone.

An oil painting on canvas that features the silhouette of person looking out to the shore.

All this goes to say that if we had wanted to maintain community, we could have, and in some places we did. But not enough. Not everywhere. Perhaps as community started to fade, it turned out we didn’t value it enough to save it. Perhaps we chose to let it die.

It could be this value shift that we feel here at Stanford when we sense something is missing. Maybe all the right pieces are here to make something beautiful, but in the midst of this digital era, we’ve forgotten how to put them together.

Bringing it home

Yet something about all this rings hollow. We say we value community. We have classes and clubs and dorms, the exact spaces that should create community naturally! We have no car culture to isolate us, no suburbanization to separate us. One could blame everything on phones, texting and social media — certainly, having YouTube to watch in the dining halls when we eat makes us less likely to take up a conversation with an acquaintance over lunch. But it seems more likely there is something else at play: the disappearance of community as a way of being.

What do I mean by a way of being? I mean the collection of learned habits that form our collective defaults for moving through the world, things we bring with us to Stanford when we arrive. It is not that phones are actively stopping us from striking up conversations when we eat alone in the dining halls. (One could have just as easily read a book or written during a lunch alone before.) Rather, it is that the broader cultural shift has made striking up a conversation with a stranger a departure from the norm. And this occurs in much more important and fundamental ways than what we do at lunch. Simply put, we’ve gotten used to operating without the middle ring.

I remember my parents telling me stories from when they went to college, how most nights someone would be playing a movie or performing in the lounge, how they’d wander down and strike up a conversation or a pool game with whoever was around.

When I arrived at Stanford, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I had hoped to find something similar. Instead, the lounges sat empty, or occupied by a friend group or two doing their own thing. Outside of the occasional poster on someone’s door, the only sense that people lived in the space came from the exit signs that had been ripped off of the ceiling.

The entire dorm would pour into the lounge when pizza arrived for on-call, only to disappear again within ten minutes. By the end of the year, most of the people in Crothers were still just a name and a face to me. Perhaps the size of Crothers made things especially desolate, but the general experience is, I think, familiar.

As we’ve become used to dedicating our time to being with our closest friends or being alone, the middle ring has, even here, withered.

What it all means

The disappearance of community, both at Stanford and across the country, isn’t just sad. It’s deadly. A sustained feeling of loneliness is associated with a health risk equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Recall that over a quarter of U.S. adults report feeling lonely “often” or “always” and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scale of the problem.

But why is loneliness so dangerous? Part of it, of course, is the emotional distress inflicted by social isolation. A 2019 literature review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders analyzed 40 previous studies linking loneliness and suicide risk, and found that social isolation, both in actual terms and the perceived feeling of loneliness, is “strongly associated with suicidal outcomes.”

On top of that, when we’re lonely, we’re less likely to eat well, to take care of ourselves, to have people to support us when we’re not feeling well. Moreover, the stress response produced by loneliness can wreak havoc on our health in its own right: as Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, explained in an interview with Vox: “When you have a protracted stress state, levels of inflammation rise. That inflammation starts to injure tissues and blood vessels, which increases our risk for chronic illnesses like heart disease. It can impair your body’s immune response. It can even cause long-term sleep deprivation, which puts us at greater risk of hypertension, obesity and a host of other physical conditions.”

Not everyone needs social interaction in the same ways, or experiences loneliness the same. But we all need support networks: the fellow congregant that notices when we’re not ourselves, that friend we know has our back, a shoulder to cry on.

Murthy also points out that when we’re lonely, we often struggle to seek help: “There’s a tremendous sense of shame that people who are lonely feel. I say that as someone who felt ashamed of being lonely as a child and even at points during adulthood. I think part of the reason is that saying you’re lonely feels like saying you’re not likable, you’re not lovable — that somehow you’re socially deficient in some way.”

The reality, of course, isn’t that we are all somehow flawed and unlikeable. The reality is we are living in a world that is increasingly devoid of community. By and large, we’ve lost the spaces where we can find ourselves comfortably among others even when we aren’t with others.

To make matters worse, our collective isolation has profound impacts not just on our mental health, but on our collective institutions. Our democracy, to put it mildly, is not healthy. The most notable example is, of course, the insurrection on Jan. 6, but the roots of that fateful day reveal a much broader and more insidious trend. No longer are our disagreements restricted primarily to what we should do about the facts. They have expanded to fundamental misunderstandings of the facts themselves. Examples are perhaps too numerous to count: did President Biden win the election? Is climate change real and anthropogenic? Are vaccines effective? Is critical race theory being taught to elementary students? Is our government secretly controlled by a shadowy cabal of pedophiles who drink the blood of infants in order to remain immortal?

When we are disconnected from others, especially from those with whom we disagree, we are far more vulnerable to misinformation, because we lack the alternative perspectives that might prompt us to question our beliefs. Those alternative perspectives can’t just come from anywhere, either. We are unlikely to be moved by an opposing politician or a Twitter thread from someone we don’t know — it is all too easy to dismiss them as “the other.” Rather, to question our own beliefs, we need them to be challenged by people we trust. Since our inner rings are likely to be people who are very similar to us already, and we don’t have an established basis of trust with our outer rings, our vanishing middle rings are the only place we might find those diverse perspectives. The more isolated you are, the worse the problem gets — there is a reason that neo-Nazi and conspiracy groups have been known to encourage recruits to cut themselves off from family and friends who aren’t members.

Some of the most compelling evidence that our division is the result of disconnection comes from James Fishkin, a communication professor here at Stanford. I currently work at his Deliberative Democracy Lab (DDL), through which Fishkin has conducted over a hundred experiments in what he calls “Deliberative Polling.” Unlike a regular poll, which just asks questions of its participants, a Deliberative Poll puts the participants in the same room for a moderated discussion, and asks its questions both before and after the event.

The results are remarkable: political polarization drops massively, not just on the issues, but also in terms of ‘affective polarization’ — how negatively the participants viewed their political opponents. In one of the largest Deliberative Polling experiments to date, America in One Room, Republicans’ feelings towards Democrats rose by 13 points on a zero-to-100 scale, whereas Democrats’ views of Republicans rose by a similar 14 points. Interestingly, the effect was largest among those with the most extreme political views. Indeed, “those who took the most extreme issue positions,” Fishkin and his colleagues speculate, “may have been even more isolated from serious contact with the other side than were party members in general.” On 23 out of the 26 issues studied, Republicans and Democrats left with more consensus on average than when they started. For those highly polarized voters, it was on every single issue.

America in One Room, believe it or not, took place over a single weekend. The fact that such little time together can so greatly transform our views of the issues and each other speaks not only to the power of human connection, but also to how sorely it is lacking.

What happens now

What might a return to community in America look like? I can’t say I have all the answers. The social institutions of the past, whether they be religious, local or political, were and still are frequently exclusionary and destructive. We would be remiss to paint over the signs on the doors that once read “whites only” with a veneer of togetherness.

Moreover, simply fortifying old community institutions against the disappearance of social capital would be treating the symptoms rather than the problem. As society changes, so too will the forms of community it contains. But they need to exist, and their existence is critical to our health, our society and our own happiness.

Perhaps part of the solution lies in changing how we build our cities and towns, by creating public spaces with community in mind. In the Barcelona Superblock model, the clever arrangement of one-way streets is used to reclaim public space and make cities more walkable without unduly hampering logistics. But it isn’t the only paradigm, and the general ethos that inspires it is shared by a whole philosophy of urban planning, known as ‘New Urbanism.’

Perhaps another part of the solution looks like Fishkin’s Deliberation Day: the idea that we make Election Day a federal holiday dedicated to more than just going to the polls. Under the proposal, voters would be given a stipend to spend time talking with other local community members in moderated discussions before they vote, much like how Deliberative Polls operate. There, individuals could hear the perspectives of others and think pragmatically about solutions. Rather than democracy being about competition, we could make it about community.

Similarly, as places of worship fade from their central small-town role in America, we could actively work to find new spaces to take their place: libraries, community centers and civic organizations can all play a role. In my hometown of Carnation, the local farmer’s market is a staple of town life. You might come just to buy veggies, but you’ll inevitably wind up seeing a friendly face or two and spend time talking as you listen to the live music. The creation of community pillars like the Carnation Farmers’ Market requires persistence and no small degree of luck, but it is possible.

Possible, of course, only if we value community enough to build it. Here at Stanford, we have all the building blocks already in place (a walkable campus, close living quarters, vibrant community organizations and opportunities for engaged discussion). This could be the perfect place to begin the process of rebuilding, to explore the new kinds of social infrastructure and cultural norms that will be required to keep connection alive in the new world we’re building for ourselves.

But those are all big ambitions. And we can start small. Perhaps that looks like being the person who starts a movie in the lounge on Sunday nights and invites anyone in the mood to join, or making an effort to strike up conversations with the people in your classes you don’t know all that well. Perhaps that looks like advocating for the neighborhood system we were promised, or engaging in community events like Cardinal Nights. This may be an enormous, structural problem that spans an entire country, but it isn’t climate change. Community is by its nature local and personal. Individual choices matter.

We don’t have to let community fade, if we value it enough to save it.

So as we find ourselves tumbling into an unknown and often terrifying future, let us at least pause long enough to make sure we’re not tumbling alone.

Contact Seamus at humor 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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