I just commented on a old friend’s Facebook photo of his new baby boy. I haven’t actually spoken to this friend in ten years, but through the wonders of the internet, I have remained in touch enough to know about this major life event, and to participate in it as a friend, however distant and electronically. Some may say that this type of “Facebook friendship” is “surface level” or “insincere” or even “fake.” Perhaps it is true that what remains of this once close friendship is somewhat thin, but despite its thinness, I would argue it is indeed sincere and it is very much real. In terms of sincerity, it could be argued that my Facebook comment was in fact more sincere than many of the verbal congratulations he has no doubt received in the past few days. You see, in the virtual world, I had the option of not commenting on his new status as father, but the friendship we once had and the shared role as new father compelled me to give him a virtual “high five.” The acquaintance he sees at work or in the supermarket or at church or in the local watering hole does not have the same option. That acquaintance is compelled by social norms to note my friend’s new addition.
But what of the claim that social media relationships are not “real”? I mean, we do tend to describe anything online as “virtual” which would indicate something approaching reality that is not reality. But I don’t think this is right. I would suggest that the “virtual” label is something of an anachronistic misnomer. There was a time when few of us had internet connections and those that did connect through Prodigy or AOL seemed to be doing something that was apart from real tangible human interactions. But internet usage has certainly long passed a tipping point in which the eccentric has become the norm. The very fact that I am blogging this instead of publishing it in a magazine or handing it out as a leaflet in the town square inherently points to the “realness” of the internet over, or at least alongside, more traditional forms of communication. Of course, none of this is new news. So why write about it?
Often my blog posts arise out of a response to some philosophical argument I have recently had or in response to a major event in history. This one is different. My struggle here is internal – no one has challenged my online friendship, but I nonetheless feel the need to defend it as real. Why is this? I think it is because I want to defend the whole cyber social landscape as real because it is in fact important to me. But what makes these relationships important?
In many ways, the internet is an odd social space. Facebook and other social media allow relationships to continue that otherwise would have long since passed into history. This medium creates a whole new category of social interactions that for previous generations, never existed. But what does this new category of relationship do for our social fabric? This question, I think gets to the heart of this blog post, but before I can get there, I have to turn back to the last major social revolution: the industrial revolution.
Emile Durkheim once suggested that modernism or, more precisely, urbanism was causing a massive shift in “what holds society together.” That is, the industrial revolution changed our very social makeup. It sparked a mass movement of people from small rural towns to large cities, but in the process it also redefined the social forces that bring us together to form a society. In traditional rural life, it was the sameness of people that drew them together. Most families in small rural communities shared the same daily tasks – they were mostly farmers who all tilled their own fields, milked and butchered their own cattle, made their own butter, baked their own bread and rolled their own candles. Even those who served specialized roles, like a town blacksmith or schoolteacher, most likely attended the same church services and participated in the same town meetings. Neighbors were drawn to each other not out of necessity but out of commonality. Durkheim termed this “mechanical solidarity.” We shared in each others’ struggles because we had the same struggles. We celebrated in each others’ joys because we had the same joys. And this commonality was the basis for community.
The industrial revolution changed all of this. The division and specialization of labor changed the fundamental relationship between people. Instead of being drawn together out of sameness, Durkheim argues, modern urban societies were held together by difference (what Durkheim termed “organic solidarity”). In urban societies each individual had a role that was defined by their occupation. There were dedicated butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Even the supporting farms became distinct: fruit and vegetable farms were separated from dairy farms and from cattle ranches. In the process, the individual became specialized and became dependant on others. If I was a baker, I needed to be in relationship with a grocer, a butcher, and a candlestick maker in order to fulfill my daily needs. Urban life also created centers of cultural interaction. For better or worse, rural individuals turned urbanites as well as immigrants from foreign lands were confronted in cities with beliefs and norms that were vastly different from their own traditions. In place of fixed cultural norms that defined traditional reality, new modern norms such as tolerance and pluralism arose that embraced difference itself as normative.
The shift in social forces worried Durkheim. He was not concerned so much with the intersection of cultures and clashes of differences (these certainly have both good and bad effects). Durkheim’s concern, though, was more fundamental. He feared that the social force of difference would not be strong enough to hold society together. Durkheim, like many of the early sociologists, wrote around the turn of the 20th century. The industrial revolution had been in place long enough for Durkheim and others to recognize the downsides of this revolution. The division of labor turned people into commodities. Working conditions were atrocious (think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, written around the same time). Relationships based on difference were competitive rather than cooperative. The almighty city, for all its benefits, was no utopia, but for better or worse it became the way of the West.
So what does this have to do with Facebook and other forms of social media in the 21st century? Well, I think it is clear that Durkheim was astute is his observation and description of these shifts in the makeup of modern society. Many of the forces he described can still be observed in today’s society. I also think his concerns were well founded. It is hard to talk about a common good in a world that has so embraced individualism and competition. That said, one of the primary differences between today and Durkheim’s time (other than unions and worker rights and social safety nets) is the existence of social media. Durkheim simply could not have predicted the next technological-cum-social revolution: the almightily internet. Like the city and the industrial revolution, the internet and the technological revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has brought both tremendous advancement and the potential for so much harm. One need only look to the Arab spring revolutions to see the potential in this new age. On the other hand, realities such as cyber bullying point to the drawbacks of technology. But these stories have already been written.
What I would like to propose here is that social media has also made a more subtle impact on our social fabric. I am suggesting that one of the benefits of social media is that it offers the chance to return to the mechanical solidarity of a traditional society, while still living in this oh-so-modern era. Take the example I began this post with: my comment on a friend’s life changing event. My friend posted the picture of his beautiful baby boy because he wished to share this event with his community and I chose to respond because, as a fairly new father myself, I know how wonderful that moment is. It was our similarity that drew us together at this moment. I didn’t contact him because of something I needed that he could uniquely provide (organic solidarity). Rather I commented because I can relate (mechanical solidarity). Our connection was brief – chances are I won’t have much, if any, contact with him for months – and such is the nature of friends and acquaintances on social media. But without Facebook, the connection would not have been there at all.
Among the many many uses of social media, for me, one of the most vital is the chance to remain connected to those I share a history with and, more importantly, share a likeness with. It is the opportunity to remain in mechanical solidarity with those beyond my immediate friends and family with whom I share my daily life. In the competitive modern urban landscape, these sorts of connections are always too few, no matter how strong your local network of friends and family is. The opportunity to expand our connections of mechanical solidarity is vital to maintaining a sense of community and a common good.
I believe, with Durkheim, that it is the collection of many micro-interactions that weaves the social fabric that holds us all together. Even if our social media networks are the thinnest of relationships, when woven together and then interwoven with our more substantial relationships they strengthen our claim to community and stand in necessary tension with the competitive forms of organic solidarity that comprise the modern urban life.