Although it seems clears that mid-20th century predictions of the demise of community have yet to come to pass—most people continue to socially connect with others—many observers are too quick to declare that all is well. Indeed, in my recent book, I critique the tendency by some contemporary sociologists to write as if people today have never had it better when it comes to social togetherness, as if we have reached a state of communal perfection. The way that citizens do community in contemporary technological societies has been breathlessly described as a new “revolutionary social operating system” that recreates the front porch of previous generations within our digital devices. There is quite a lot to say regarding how such pronouncements fail to give recognition to the qualitative changes to social life in the digital age, changes that impact how meaningful and satisfying people find it to be. Here I will just focus on one particular way in which contemporary community life is relatively thinner than what has existed at other times and places.
After she was raped in 2013, Gina Tron’s social networks were anything but revolutionary. In addition to the trauma of the act itself, she suffered numerous indignities in the process of trying to work within the contemporary justice system to bring charges against her attacker. During such trying times, at a moment when one would most need the loving support of friends, her social network abandoned her. Friends shunned her because they were afraid of having to deal with emotional outbursts, because they worried that just hearing about the experience would be traumatic, or because they felt that they would not be able to moan melodramatically about their more mundane complaints in the presence of someone with a genuine problem.
Within the logic of networked individualism, that revolutionary social operating system extoled by some contemporary sociologists, such behavior is unsurprising. Social networks are defined not so much by commitment but by mutually advantageous social exchanges. Social atoms connect to individually trade something of value rather than because they share a common world or devotion to a common future. For members of Tron’s social network, the costs of connecting after her rape seemed to exceed the benefits; socializing in the aftermath of the event would force them to give more support than they themselves would receive.
Even the institutions that had previously centered community life—namely churches—now often function similarly to weak social networks. Many evangelical churches seem more like weekly sporting events than neighborhood centers, boasting membership rolls in the thousands and putting on elaborate multimedia spectacles in gargantuan halls that often rival contemporary pop music acts. No doubt social networks do form through such places, providing smaller scale forms of togetherness and personal support in times of need. Yet there are often firm limits to the degree of support such churches will give, limits that many people would find horrifying.
A large number of evangelical megachurches have their roots in and continue to preach prosperity theology. In this theological system, God is believed to reliably provide security and prosperity to those who are faithful and pious. A byproduct of such a view is that leaders of many, if not most, megachurches find it relatively unproblematic to personally enrich themselves with the offerings given by (often relatively impoverished) attendees, purchasing million dollar homes and expensive automobiles. Prosperity theology gives megachurch pastors a language through which they can frame such actions as anything but unethical or theologically contradictory, but rather merely a reflection and reinforcement of their own godliness.
The worst outcome of prosperity theology comes out of logically deducing its converse: If piety brings prosperity, then hardship must be the result of sin and faithlessness. Indeed, as Kate Bowler describes, one megachurch asked a long-attending member stricken with cancer to stop coming to service. The fact that his cancer persisted, despite his membership, was taken as sign of some harmful impropriety; his presence, as a result, was viewed as posing a transcendental risk to the rest of the membership. It appears that, within prosperity theology, community is to be withdrawn from members in their moments of greatest need.
However, many contemporary citizens have largely abandoned traditional religious institutions, preferring instead to worship at the altar of physical performance. CrossFit is especially noteworthy for both the zeal of its adherents and the viciousness of the charges launched by critics, who frequently describe the fitness movement as “cultlike.” Although such claims can seem somewhat exaggerated, there is some kernel of truth to them. Julie Beck, for instance, has recently noted the extreme evangelical enthusiasm of many CrossFitters.
While there is nothing problematic about developing social community via physical recreation per se—indeed, athletic clubs and bowling leagues served that purpose in the past—what caught my eye about CrossFit was how easy it was to be pushed out of the community. There is an element of exclusivity to it. Adherents like to point to disabled members as evidence that CrossFit is ostensibly for everyone. Yet for those who get injured, partly as a result of the fitness movement’s narrow emphasis on “beat the clock” weightlifting routines at the expense of careful attention to form, frequently find themselves being assigned sole responsibility for damaging their bodies. Although the environment encourages—even deifies—the pushing of limits, individual members are themselves blamed if they go too far. In any case, those suffering an injury are essentially exiled, at least temporarily; there are no “social” memberships to CrossFit: You are either there pushing limits or not there at all.
In contrast to Britney Summit-Gil’s argument that community is characterized by the ease by which people can leave, I contend that thick communities are defined by the stickiness of membership. I do not mean that it is necessarily hard to leave them—they are by no means cults—but that membership is not so easily revoked, and especially not during times of need. No doubt there are advantages to thinly communal social networks. People use them to advance their career, fundraise for important causes, and build open source software. Yet we should be wary of their underlying logic of limited commitment, of limited liability, becoming the model for community writ large. If social networks are indeed revolutionary, then we should carefully examine their politics: Do they really provide us with the “liberation” we seek or just new forms of hardship? Have new masters simply taken the place of the old ones? Those are questions citizens cannot begin to intelligently consider if they are too absorbed with marveling over new technical wonders, too busy standing in awe of the strength of weak ties.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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