A Virtual Community is Not a Community

Stephen Marche has written an interesting piece in the May Atlantic on how facebook is making us lonely. There is a good deal to comment on here, and I’m not particularly inclined to take yet another shot at Facebook, for while it is symptomatic it is an easy target. The pulling apart of Americans into public and private selves, which is to say not as members of healthy communities, remains a central problem of America’s self-colonization, and if people can’t belong to healthy communities, they can’t be healthy. Marche draws attention to a staggering set of statistics compiled by Ronald Dworkin:

In the face of this social disintegration, we have essentially hired an army of replacement confidants, an entire class of professional carers. As Ronald Dworkin pointed out in a 2010 paper for the Hoover Institution, in the late ’40s, the United States was home to 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 nonclinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental-health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. The majority of patients in therapy do not warrant a psychiatric diagnosis. This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what used to be called regular problems. We have outsourced the work of everyday caring.

Berry has rightly noted that communities and economies are not separate entities, and here we see yet another example of how destroying communities creates enormous economic costs that are absolutely unnecessary were the communities left intact and able to do what they do well: sustain human well-being by sustaining connectedness.

6 comments on this post.
  1. John Haas:

    Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO, should be required reading for anyone speaking the “c-word.”

  2. Stewart Kahn Lundy:

    Let’s try reading something else too: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/claude_s_fischer_loneliness_facebook.php

  3. Anymouse:

    It all depends on metrics used, and which ones are important. “Loneliness” is harder to measure than low birthrates, divorces, and isolated housing patterns.

  4. Stewart K. Lundy:

    “A natural unity can be attained by us men only where we are in local proximity, in real contact. . . .The core of all genuine communal life is the local community, the economic community, whose essence no one can imagine who seeks to judge if, for instance, by what today calls itself ‘community.’”- Gustav Landauer, FS, 126.

  5. S.M. Stirling:

    What economic community? I live in Santa Fe, NM, and my money comes from New York. My economic community is the people who buy and read my books — who I can only contact from a distance, since I’m certainly not going to be making a living writing for the 65,000 people who live in my town. A lot of whom are artists, since this is the 3rd-largest art market in North America, after New York and San Francisco.

    When people mostly associated with their neighbors, they did so because they had no choice. That was the only game in town, and anyway you needed your neighbors esteem to survive.

    We’re not in either of those positions — so getting to know the neighbors is just as “artificial” as using Facebook. It’s a lifestyle choice.

  6. S.M. Stirling:

    Y’know, when 19th-century visitors came to the US from Europe, they noted two things which they found astonishing.

    The first was that there were “no villages” in the US. By that they meant concentrated places where rural people lived and walked out to their fields every day. Scattered farms were known in Europe but were exceptions in most places; in the US they were the rule, and they were huge by Old World standards. It took considerable time and effort to meet the neighbors. Things were this way because most people (as opposed to, say, government officials or clergymen) wanted to live like that.

    Notably, the only places in the US where genuine village systems were common were those where the State or the Church or local lords controlled how people lived — early Massachusetts Bay, or early Utah, or the slave South where the masters made the workers on plantations live in dense settlements where they could better be controlled and disciplined. When this pressure was releived, the people scattered — Governor Winthrop was worried about that back in the 17th century.

    It may have been the French author Sartre who said “hell is other people”, but the sentiment seems to have been strong in America for quite some time.

    The second thing that surprised the European observers was that pretty well every farm in the US had a “walking price”.

    That is, there was a sum, usually close to the locally predominant asking price per acre, for which any given farmer would take the cash and walk off his farm.

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