Social Networks and the Quest for Community

Robert A. Nisbet

Robert A. Nisbet

A friend recently introduced me to the GPS app Waze, which promises—warning: I will likely botch the lingo—a crowdsourcing solution to traffic: “Nothing can beat real people working together. Imagine 30 million drivers out on the roads, working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic. . . .”  Waze users report traffic incidents and driving conditions in exchange for points. I can’t tell what these points are actually good for—probably something that exceeds my understanding—so the reports seem close to altruistic activity. The app is addicting, invaluable and troubling. It leaves one with the impression of participating in a community that in fact does not exist, of committing acts of altruism that actually require no sacrifice and of making connections that are in reality hollow. Dr. Nisbet, please call your office.

To be sure, one ought not extrapolate more of a message from a navigation app than is actually there, and none of this is a knock on Waze as all it promises to be: a better means of navigation. But Waze is indicative of the false sense of community that social networks can induce: one that is either anonymous, impersonal or, at best, arms-length. Such relationships do not involve the same sorts of accommodations and complications that Claes Ryn reminds us sustained, personal, face-to-face interactions require. Social networks instead enable connections on the individual’s terms, at times and places of his or her choosing.

That is not to say social media does not have its place, particularly in sustaining long-distance relationships. It is to say, however, that it is no substitute for locality and rootedness in physical, geographical place.  Locality is,  Robert Nisbet tells us, the ultimate basis of community. It is where the attributes of community—shared dogmas, recognized authority structures and the like—take root.  Local, face-to-face relationships demand sacrifices of self-will in ways that anonymous and distant ones—indeed, relationships one of whose defining features is that they are themselves engaged in only at will—do not.

Just as Nisbet teaches there is no such creature as a national political community, there is no meaningful community of 30 million drivers. The actual features of community simply do not inhere in such groupings, not merely because of their size but because of the distance and impersonality that separates their members.  Crucially, they ask little of the member but to dip in and out on personally hospitable terms.

In asking little, they also provide little. When Waze offers to provide links to other drivers—users operating through pseudonyms can ping each other with messages, for example—surely the sense of connection that results is narcotic: only fleetingly gratifying and ultimately hollow.  Similarly, reporting traffic obstacles for other drivers, while a worthy service, gives the impression of an impersonal, check-the-box altruism that asks little of the giver and certainly forges no connection with the recipient.  It recalls Tocqueville’s portrait of democratic man concerned with humanity rather than human beings: “In democratic centuries … when the duties of each individual toward the species are much clearer, devotion toward one man becomes more rare; the bond of human affections expands and relaxes.”

Nisbet might ask whether the superficiality associated with online technology’s vaunted universality is not a bug but rather a feature of social media: that is, not merely its dark side but its deeper allure.  It provides an illusion of the sense of community human beings need while asking few of the sacrifices that living together in person, in place with other adults requires.  Nisbet reminds us that such illusions exact their own costs.  The insecurity of the isolated individual is chief among them, a point the reader is invited to contemplate while I post these thoughts to my community of followers on Twitter (link no longer available).