Urban Tribes and Social Dark Matter

Ethan Watters wrote the book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment. His SXSW Interactive addressed how our self-chosen communities are nodes in large, complex networks of such groups. What follows is a partial transcript of is session.


His SXSW Interactive addressed how our self-chosen communities are nodes in large, complex networks of such groups. What follows is a partial transcript of is session.

I want to talk about some of the anxieties felt by the current generation. We’ve delayed marriage longer than any other preceding generation. And that comes right after the generation with the earliest marrying age. That was in the ’50s. There’s a nervousness around the marrying delay, but it’s part of something larger.

We live further away from our kinship networks. We’re not joining community groups. There’s fear and suspicion of what we’re doing instead. I suppose that inclination is understandable. It’s a group that is freer than any generation I can imagine. Because freedom is a lack of restraints, we don’t often look at what freedom is.

We’re free of parenting responsibilities. That means that we have a lot of free time. We’re also free of parental control. There’s a corollary to that parental role. Other advice givers have stepped away from the plate. There aren’t the mentors, priests, bosses, and other strict advice givers. Now they just encourage us and offer support. They had a tough time, so they don’t have a unified front to give us advice.

We’re also free of punishment for the consequences of our actions. We’re no longer disciplined by our elders. We have this notion that we’ve gone to the city once to create ourselves, and that we can always go to another city and try again. We also have more dating and relationship options. There’s also no order in which we’re expected to live our lives. We’re also free from general social strife. There’s no shared sense of our generation that we were chosen for some specific purpose.

Because freedom is an absence of restraints, we often fail to look at the ways in which we’re free. When we go home to our hometowns, we might see the people who stayed behind, who married earlier, and lead different lives. We also fail to look to history. Some baby boomers wonder whether I’ve skipped over the ’70s, which was a time of social change. It was a time of social change, but it wasn’t a time of personal freedom.

If we’re truly living in a time of unprecedented choice, we might ask where the fanfare is. People aren’t chanting, “We are all free,” because we don’t see the freedom. People are really only free in the choices they make. What are we doing with that freedom? A lot of social commentators say that we’re not doing much with it; we’re squandering it.

Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone came out around the time when George Bush the First was talking about 1,000 points of light and Hilary Clinton was claiming that it takes a village. While I was impressed by Putnam’s book, there was something missing. His description of the lack of social bonds didn’t match what I was experiencing in San Francisco.

So I looked around my city to see why I felt so connected, and I saw my group of friends, which I called my urban tribe. I lived far away from my family, I moved from job to job, and I wasn’t joining the local groups, but this sort of group could be the answer to Putnam. Generations may be judged by their grand contributions to human history, but individuals are judged on smaller deeds.

We have yet to develop that narrative for friendships. It seems to lack that meaning. But if we look at our relationships with our friends, we might think about having more social gravity in our lives. If you look at what has replaced the priests and shamans, we have career counselors. We replace families by moving in with our friends. We blur the difference between workmate and friend by starting businesses with our friends. We create rituals with our friends to mark the passing of time in our lives.

But I’m comparing apples and oranges here. Friends can care for themselves, but Putnam says we need to join the Lion’s Club. But how might these urban tribes form a network across a city? These networks rely heavily on weak ties. I would like to add another layer, the shadow ties, people we don’t know yet, but people who will come into our lives within a year.

Certainly, when I looked at my life, it became very clear that I managed my life in the city by utilizing my network in the city. It really is the way we navigate city life. This is valuable to the individual, but how is it useful for the community at large? The shadow tie is the social science equivalent of dark matter. It creates a force that’s difficult to see but holds everything together.

As research about the movement that led to the collapse of the Berlin wall, we can see that weak ties can be extremely important. And rave culture, Critical Mass bike rides, Burning Man, flash mobs, Friendster, and Meetup are also examples of how we interact with our chosen networks.

A lot of time is spent talking about the technology that supports these groups, but I think it’s important to the last step that makes us read a communication, the personal connections and friendships. Messages can go out to the network, but that last link, that last synapse, depends on that message coming from a trusted source.

On any given night, I can tap into a network of people and do something, whether it’s joining a political campaign or finding a pick-up Frisbee game. It’s definitely past time that we consider social capital being contingent on memberships. It can be beyond a tight group of friends and self-interest and consider the broader city and network. This community building doesn’t happen in discrete moments of our lives. It happens fluidly. A chosen community requires personal, conscious involvement. Even the phrase “social capital,” with its metaphor of spending and saving isn’t something we want to embrace. We want to approach it as something we barter.

If we haven’t squandered it, then what have we done? We’ve had a massive experiment in friendship. Can friendship sustain us emotionally? Can it bind communities as well?