musing about social networks and g/local cultures

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by: danah boyd

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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