musing about social networks and g/local cultures

While taking a break from my dissertation to do my taxes, my mind wandered back to my data. I started reflecting on how the new suburbia* parents I met when interviewing teens knew few other adults in their community. They knew other adults in passing – fellow churchgoers, parents of kids’ friends, etc. but many didn’t really socialize outside the family. Explanations always seemed to boil down to time, but I couldn’t help but wonder if lack of interest was also part of it. One parent complained that it was more fun when there were playdates because she could choose which adults to hang out with; when her kids started making their own friends, dealing with other parents became a nuisance. In thinking about who these parents knew in their communities, I started wondering about the diversity of the people they were likely to know.

My mind then began chewing on the importance of knowing people in your community to being invested in “buy local” rhetoric. In my social circles, “support your local XYZ” is a collective mantra that is more abstract the experiential. I don’t know my local farmer, store owner, bookkeeper, etc. but there is an ethos that I should support them anyways. What happens when that ethos doesn’t exist? People are expected to be outraged that box stores are costing their neighbors their jobs, but what if you don’t know your neighbors let alone the people who own the local stores? Lacking that personal connection or liberal guilt, doesn’t it make sense to save money instead of support local?

In many of the middle class new suburbia communities I visited, many of the cash registers at box stores were worked by teenagers. What if parents are more likely to find someone they know at the cash register of a box store (a kids’ friend) than a local one? What’s the likelihood of building a long-standing connection with the waiter, grocer, movie ticket guy, person behind the cash register, etc.? Given the general turnover of jobs like this, what’s the likelihood that the front-facing people of a store are likely to be there the next year? And if you don’t know the owner, all you know is who works at the front. [Older folks seemed to be much more likely to visit establishments frequently where they build long-lasting relations with local folks while the “no time” parents didn’t appear to be doing that.]

It seems to me that kids have much more extensive and diverse local networks than their parents. But these networks are age-based, meaning that they knew other teens. When these teens talked about the ideal places to work as a student, they talked about working in box stores or Starbucks or the mall because they valued larger stores where other teens worked the same shift and where it was likely that other teens would come and visit them. They certainly weren’t fighting for local small business to stay.

I know that the above observations are way overgeneralized, but this is a musing not an academic report… It’s quite possible that these observations don’t hold up more broadly – I didn’t collect enough data to say either way. Still, I couldn’t help but thinking about that observation as a side thought.

And I can’t help but wonder about how different social network structures in different communities might have a lot to do with issues behind local vs. global. If you’re more likely to know people globally than locally, why be invested in local business? (Ignoring for the obvious long-term implications that are too abstract to be felt in comparison to the immediate wallet impact.) This could especially be true if you don’t expect to live in a community for the rest of your life. How much do mobility and homophilous connections result in not building enough local social solidarity to sustain local business? Perhaps there is no correlation between community social network structures and investment in local businesses, but I can’t help but wonder if there is. It would seem to make sense, no?

Anyhow, random late night musings…

* Its important to distinguish between new and old suburbia. My observations explicitly concern new suburbia where entire neighborhoods of people have been living in their house for under 5 years, where neighborhoods are rigidly planned and yet structured to permit next to zero neighbor interaction or child play space, where cars are needed to get a carton of milk, where walking gets you nowhere and there aren’t sidewalks anyhow, etc. Old suburbia tends to be extremely functional and not have the same social or community dynamics.

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19 thoughts on “musing about social networks and g/local cultures

  1. Bertil Hatt

    Certainly a very good intuition — all I know from those areas is through the TV show “Weeds”, so I can’t possibly have an opinion. I doubt it is exclusive of suburbs, but anyone who has little architectural and urban experience (that is anyone who lived in a house, a flat or a cave for more then a week) can tell you American spread-out urbanism is socially inefficient.
    To have validated opinion on the subject (stats!) you can look at age impact in social graphs. An increasing number of mobile phone logs data base are made available, some include billing address, other including the position at the beginning of the call. What surprises me in all similar database (the largest and most recent being MSN, not the best for 40 y.o. but seem to be the same) is that the strongest effect by far is the age correlation, and the 25 years bump; this bump corresponds to generation (family often) ties: the more exclusive this bump is, the more likely you are to say that the only social ties left to parents of teenagers is the said teenager.
    I’ll keep you posted if a study I’m thinking about is heading towards that question precisely or not.

  2. Trevor Speirs

    Astute observations. I wonder if it is more culturally based? In our Merage Edge class at which you are scheduled to speak, it was raised how gen X’ers value their privacy and how the younger generations are less concerned about privacy and more concerned about sharing themselves and being part of something larger.

    It was definitely evidant from class comments that Gen X’ers (who are likely today’s parents) had a difficult time understanding sharing with a community beyond 1-to-1 friendships.

  3. Darius K.

    Great post. I especially feel the difference between new suburbia and old suburbia (great terms!). I grew up in new suburbia: Fairfax, VA. I now reside in old suburbia: the suburbs around Boston. The difference is astonishing, and I’m much happier where I am.

  4. Liz Lawley


    Thanks for clearly indicating the new/old suburbia distinction 😀 Those of us who are long-time residents of old suburbia are grateful.

  5. Ale Fernandez

    I don’t know how I got here – for some reason this blog post was the top link on the side of a guardian article – but very interesting stuff.

    Yes, I think it is a bit generalised, I’m glad to say. I can generalise a bit further though, having lived in a few places in Europe: I think here in the UK for one thing lots of older suburbs are around, lots of newer ones do have pavements and with the breakdown of classic family structures here in the UK lots of people rely on friends and neighbours day to day. Also, maybe also a generalisation, but there is less of a concern for “customer service” here: It’s not really a monetary but a social concern: people are grumpier behind the counter, but will go out of their way for you if they know you(letting you pay later, letting you come in when closing etc) – especially if you go to the continent – and maybe that would contribute towards wanting to establish relationships with local shops. Maybe even the closed-in small nature of european cities in general compared to the US might make it more conducive to being aware of local shops and knowing other people in the area. When there’s less space to move around in, you end up having more contact with people. Also your post reminded me of the film “end of suburbia” – which touches on these things…

    In a local campaign to change a planned demolition of a factory into a community market and other ecological things, we asked all people in the area what they’d like to see the buildings used for. Only the teenagers wanted a shopping centre there, whereas grown ups mostly asked for eco-friendly features. It would be really useful to see the difference between young and older networks so I hope you do turn it into something more academic!


  6. zephoria

    Putnam rightly points out that traditional markers of community have died, but this is used to say that there is a death of community. I do believe that there’s a death of geographically proximate community in the sense that he’s talking about, but I don’t agree that all community is lost. It has been restructured, primarily around shared interests. People create collectives of people like them. They do so online, they do so through groups that bring people together from a variety of different physical communities in driving distance. All of the “advantages” of the Internet and cars in connecting people regardless of geography appear to mean that people have little incentive to spend time with their neighbors if they don’t have tons in common with their neighbors.

  7. Colleen

    This makes me think of my move at the age of 16 from Seattle (actually in the city, 2 miles from the downtown core) to Reno (which is a suburb without a real urban center to be a suburb of, oddly enough.) It makes me think about the fact that Reno went from frontier town, in a sense, to suburb, with no real transition between the two. The growth there has really been within the last 20 or so years, and though I’m no expert, I’m not sure there was much development in the way of local businesses before Wal-Mart and other big boxes came. Thus, it’s hard to even develop a “support local” mentality when the local business community is so small that your needs aren’t really met by it. And what about the case of urban sprawl? There are local businesses that can be supported, but they are so far away (10+ miles) that with the cost of gas, it adds another level of economics to going to your local Target/Wal-Mart/Shopko.

  8. Michael Wood-Lewis

    This is a huge issue… disconnectedness, isolation, lack of community. Ask Americans how many of their neighbors they know, how many can they name, how many of their homes have they been inside… you’ll get very dismal answers compared to a generation or two ago.

    That’s what led my wife and I to create Front Porch Forum less than two years ago. We host 130 online neighborhood forums covering our entire metro area. Already nearly 9,000 households subscribe, including 30% of Burlington, VT. Each neighborhood forum is configured to connect clearly identified nearby neighbors and enhance the sense of community… and it’s working.

    E.g., a 14 year-old girl wanted to have canoe outing with friends for her birthday. Her mom was trying to figure out where she could get the $200 needed to rent four canoes and gear when she noticed several canoes sticking out from behind garages around the neighborhood. But she couldn’t just start knocking on doors and expect people to hand over their canoes to a stranger.

    Yet when she posted a couple-sentence request on her FPF neighborhood forum she got more offers than she needed. Some folks even dropped the canoes in her front yard.

    So the direct need was met, but the kicker… now this mom and teen know several of their neighbors and have a little shared history on which to build.

    This kind of thing is happening every day all over our small metro area now. -Michael,

    P.S. In fact, please vote for Front Porch Forum. We’re in the Top 20 (out of 5,000 entrants) for a Steve Case-funded seed capital give-away. The Final Four will be determined by online public vote. And the first ten to correctly pick the Final Four will each get a $2,500 grant to be directed to the charity of their choice… so vote today!

  9. Ben Kunz

    Your observation about suburban solitude is accurate, yet I think there are two simple answers.

    1. As living spaces become more crowded, humans tend to protect their privacy by *not* getting to know the neighbors encroaching on their yard. It’s easier to maintain the illusion that we have control over our personal space if we ignore the 40something guy grilling on the deck next door. This is why people buy tall shrubs or put up fences, except we now fence others off in our minds.

    I’ve seen this dynamic in my own Connecticut community (and fall victim to it myself). In four years, I’ve made many close friends in my town — but all are a modest car ride away, and the neighbors next to me are people whom I speak with three times a year, usually in stumbling upon them. The neighbors are too close to be comfortable.

    Lest urbanites find this amusing, think of how comfortable you are with striking up conversations with strangers on the subway. The woman sitting next to you could be a potential friend, but neither of you want to bridge that close privacy wall to find out. In fact, trying would be a breach of social etiquette.

    2. The *other* possibility is that adults in suburbia connect with others primarily via phone, internet or car. Very few people walk anywhere anymore. So if the next “node” in our physical-world network is a car ride away, it is much easier to make friends at the soccer field or the church — one car leap — than in the house next door. In this sense, we suburbanites are connecting to others who are close by in our network. It’s just that the lines within our networks skip the nuanced, below-the-radar particles of neighbors next door.

    In the rulers of our lives, we either skip over people between the tick-marks, or prefer not to think that those tiny tick-marks exist. It’s simply easier to connect with those at the end of a car ride, and to envision our home really isn’t surrounded by thousands of other humans, breathing in the dark so close nearby.

  10. Crawford

    Martin Mull’s book, “History of White People in America” was supposed to be comedic satire. You know how those things work out.

    Speaking as a survey of one middle-ager who’s lived in and out of suburbs, I found one constant: It didn’t really matter all that much. Workaholism meant no time for relationships outside of the office. Your decription of “busy” suburbanites made me relive that horror as I got just a little sick in my mouth.

    Consider this, though. The rise of multi-use retail/housing developments over the last 5-7 years seems to be a direct outgrowth of a yearning to recover those neighborhood connections later in life (empty nester, early retirement years).

    So maybe we’re destined to return to close-knit community. And to buy our adult diapers locally.

  11. Tarah

    An eye opening musing….I grew up in Phoenix, AZ on the border of old and new suburbia, old suburbia in Phoenix has more and more new suburbia qualities as the Valley of the Sun expands beyond the valley…at a frightening pace. I have been in San Francisco for 4 years so far, and I love the community dynamic that I wish I had more of as a kid. Learn from the past to make a better future, right?

  12. Joan Vinall-Cox

    I live in an old suburb where 4 houses on my block are for sale, and the community public school is slated to be closed so a new one can be opened in the “new” suburbs north of the highway. In my area there is a rapid turnover not just of house owners, but many houses are demolished and replaced with larger ones.

    I can walk to stores, on an attractive main street, but the stores are also turning over rapidly, as one person has bought most of the buildings and charges very high rent. The kids in the coffee shops keep changing too.

    I think even many of the “old” suburbs suffer from the malaise you describe, partially because of the workaholism you described in a previous post. As a long-time feminist, I hesitate to point this out, but the “housewives” were the glue that knit communities together, and outside of the temporary child-rearing communities you referred to, we just use our houses as maildrops, backdrops, and sleeping areas.

    I could be biased, because I’m not gregarious by nature, but I doubt that anyone on our block even says “hi” to everyone else on the block, let alone knows their name. Makes me think of the line from a seventies song “Why doesn’t anyone stay in the same place anymore?”

  13. John Dodds

    I wonder if old surburbia felt like new surburbia in the early days? I doubt it because much has changed both socially and architecturally since then, but it will be interesting to see if residents begin to feel a need for a local epicentre though, of course, there is a difference between wanting one and supporting it. Here in the UK, a big debate about the heart of small neighbourhoods has been enegendered by the proposed shutting down of numerous post offices that has followed from the reduction of the postal service subsidies some years ago. People are quick to complain that to shut down a local post office is to destroy the heart of a community, but the reality is that they are being shut down because those same people don’t make them anywhere close to being financially viable, i.e. they’re not prepared to subsidise their social worth.

  14. Rob H

    As usual, your insights are great. I live in a wonderful “old suburbia” neighborhood and it’s exactly like what you describe. We love the community feeling and intermixing of adults. We find that about 1/2 of the new arrivals don’t want to “play” with our community and that’s a shame because it dims our neighborhood network effect.

    Concerning new suburbia – I’ve seen that the overall communities don’t bond, but there are very intense groups that form per cul-de-sac. As you predicted, these groups are strictly bound by their roles as parents.

  15. Eric Dewhirst

    I believe it is about charm and not supporting your neighbour. If you could choose from shopping at a small butcher where the children of the owner work there or a meat distribution center at the end of a parking lot – where would you go? Our prevailing perspective is that “Strangers are Danger” so the chorus to save the small business is as much about creating a more welcoming space than it is to help the unknown neighbour. However cash value trumps social value in most cases so we see these big box stores.

    I think online social networks thrive because we have weakened our physical space to being merely multi-lane roads and big box stores – places where nobody would ever care to pull up a chair and sip a latte. We all want to live in the world of Jane Jacobs – however the economies of scale killed the dream.

    I am grateful that you take some time out from your studies to muse – it is some of the most refreshing reading I get online.

    Cheers – Eric
    P.S. – @Rob H – I live in “old suburbia” as well and I agree it is a wonderful place to be – a bit like Hotel California – when you first move in you plan to be here for a while before it cramps your style – and then you find yourself never wanting to move away.

  16. Steve

    It’s at least of passing interest that so many people commented identifying themselves as living in “new” or “old” suburbia. But nobody seems to want to admit to living in urbia (?)- that is in the city – not the burbs.

    Just a thought,

  17. Emma

    Dan suggested: e *other* possibility is that adults in suburbia connect with others primarily via phone, internet or car. Very few people walk anywhere anymore. So if the next “node” in our physical-world network is a car ride away, it is much easier to make friends at the soccer field or the church — one car leap — than in the house next door. In this sense, we suburbanites are connecting to others who are close by in our network. It’s just that the lines within our networks skip the nuanced, below-the-radar particles of neighbors next door.
    I think the movement thing could be part of this … if you go back 30 or 40 years, people got to know their neighbours much better, didn’t move miles away every few years etc.
    However, from reading, I get the impression that not everyone liked it … you couldn’t have a secret liaison with someone, cos everyone would know…

    In some ways, are we bringing back that intimacy; just online rather than off line; there’s just a generation or two in the middle who’re too young for the “old ways” & consider themselves too old for the “new ways”.

    To return to Dan’s point, as petrol prices go up, interest in shopping locally etc., returns, I wonder if more and more people will start to walk (or bike!) to their local shops, rather than driving to a larger store, and thus get to know local shop holders.

  18. Stevo

    This is great! Two thoughts came to mind immediately.

    1. Some people value local business not for the network, but for the cool stuff you get when you go there. There’s more diversity and I hesitate to say quirk but maybe style in many local businesses. The local market, day spa, auto mechanic and deli can taylor themselves to their preferred customer communities – not just in product mix (like say helmart) but also in terms of presentation/merchandizing and customer service.

    2. Low affinity customer communities are good for local businesses. If the people who shop there don’t know each other from elsewhere, but share similar styles and tastes, they’re going to want to come back for more. Also, they’re going to come to the store based on what it offers – call it the value in the venue, maybe – rather than on who they’re going to meet there. And they’re going to be responsive to recommendations from people who credibly share their values (say, people who love rockabilly and the derby) more than from people who they share strong affinity with (say, a mom and her son, or a teacher and his students, or soccer teammates).

    Just thoughts. But I think this is why urban areas maybe do better with local business (that is, in keeping them around) – the costs of finding and bringing together low affinity/high value people who share a common sense of style are lower. So cities sponsor group-forming networks (see Reed’s law) easier than do new suburbia OR old suburbia.

    Full disclosure: I grew up in old suburbia and the city both (Cambridge and Boston). My parents are both from old suburbia. And we all love local businesses.

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