Social scientific data has increasingly indicated that the quality and quantity of friendships in the developed world is declining. However, is it possible that we are simply seeing a transition from building social bonds in physical communities to building social bonds in digital communities? As E.O. Wilson stated humans are “compulsive group-seekers.” So it stands to reason that if physical bonds are declining, wouldn’t we search for bonds elsewhere?
I do have strong friendships in physical communities, and you probably do as well, but what is changing in the developed world is the quality and quantity of those friendships. Specifically, since the middle of the 20th century people have experienced a major transformation in the nature of friendships:
•The number of minutes people have reported spending per day with informally socializing has fallen from 85 minutes to 57 minutes
•The number of times we hang out with friends in our homes fell from 15 to 8
•The average number of close confidants has fallen from 4 to 2 (35% report no close confidants)
•Dependence on partner/spouse for close contact rose from 5% to 9%
Check out The Science of The Friend Zone on VSauce for some further commentary on that decline.
But why are the quality and quantity of our friendships declining? A great post on Naked Capitalism analyzed this question. They concluded that it has to do with the effect of human capital (as measured by education and age). Education enhances our general productivity, work ethic, and time spent engaged in membership activities. Education also makes the nature of our membership activities more engaging and interesting. However, education has a negative effect on our time spent visiting relatives and friends.
This could be one major reason why we spend less and less time socializing. There has been a dramatic reorganization of our priorities. People are much more likely to cancel social engagements (or actively avoid social engagements) for work-related reasons. This may have some complex feedback component causing our personal identities to become intimately connected with our profession. Social scientific studies have supported the idea that jobs for people in the developed world are becoming an inseparable aspect of adult identity.
Acknowledgement of this dramatic reorganization of social priorities is not new. C.S. Lewis expressed his thoughts on this issue in The Four Loves:
To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.
Unlike C.S. Lewis, I am not here to place a value judgment on modern social life. But I am here to offer a different perspective from the generally bleak picture depicted by modern sociological studies.
I do personally relate to the data produced by sociologists: I don’t make enough time for friends and family (and vice versa); I don’t have people over to my place very often (and vice versa); and the number of friends I would call close confidants is certainly <4. However, this shouldn’t necessarily surprise me. I appear to be the perfect demographic target of this phenomenon: I am educated, engaged in membership activities I find personally interesting, and find that my identity is very interconnected with my work.
As a result, my social life is not always a high priority. And my friends tend to fall within the same rough demographic target, so I am not always their highest priority either. In fact, one of my close friends and I just casually cancelled a coffee date this morning in favour of engaging in a work-related project.
So does all of this mean that we are experiencing the beginning of the end of friendship? Not necessarily.
Over the past year I have started to make real friends in digital communities. This may or may not be a new experience for many people that read Svbtle, but it has been for me. I was not a part of the rise of Digg, or even Reddit. I visited these social media platforms but I did not become a part of either community. They were too large and overwhelming to me. But I have become a part of the discussion community on Hubski. It has been a great site for me to interact with interesting individuals. It has also been a great source of creative collaboration enabling me to expand The Advanced Apes website.
My growing tendency to gravitate towards digital communities for friendship is certainly entrenching the culture of declining physical friendships. Collaborating with people in digital communities will likely decrease my reliance (and need?) of friends in physical communities. However, that works for me because participating in digital communities allows for the formation of friendships and partnerships that were previously restricted to those communities. I like it that digital communities and modern technologies allowed me to find an evolutionary theory expert who wants to collaborate on a podcast. I like it that great writers can contribute and collaborate on a borderless blog network that integrates different perspectives. And I can definitely feel that the bonds developed in these digital communities can be just as strong, and just as real, as bonds that one would develop in a physical community.
But I admit that my view on this reflects the fact that I am part of a growing demographic of people that are drifting away from physical relationships. Consequently, I am not advocating that everyone abandon their physical relationships in favour of building digital relationships. However, I think my own anecdotal experience is reason to rethink sociological friendship data. In the future, studies should attempt to quantify the relationship between friendship building in physical and digital communities.
I think that these studies would reveal that meaningful relationships are forming regardless of geography. When social networks emerged they functioned to connect us with people we already knew in real life. These networks may have provided the illusion that we were being more social, but in reality they were simply providing us with a stage to focus on ourselves in the presence of other people. In contrast, there are some social networks today that are eradicating space as an impediment to friendship. So far Hubski (and Svtble) have been personal examples of how I have built friendships in digital communities that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. They have also provided me with opportunities that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. To me, these friendships are no less valuable than those I’ve built in real life. They may be newer, but there is no reason to think they can’t be just as long lasting and meaningful.
Finally, should we expect to see the current friendship trends continue? Personally, I think it is probable. What appears to be driving the decline of physical friendships is increased levels of education, increasing commitment to work-related activities (for various reasons), and the formation of digital communities. In the future, I would expect that our education levels will constantly increase (based on modern education trends over the past 200 years). I would also expect that work for many people in the developed world will continue to blur the lines between work and play (partially because of education and partially because of digital technologies). And finally, the formation of important social bonds in digital communities will also likely continue, especially when you consider the types of virtual environments we will be able to produce in the next 10-20 years. Again, I am not trying to say whether this is good or bad, but it is something we should all give some thought.
If you want to share your thoughts on this post, you can join in the discussion on Hubski.