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How companies sell you on the promise of “community”

American life is hostile to community building, but we’re more desperate for it than ever.

Illustration of isolated groups of people connected by glowing lines. Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

In early May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced an advisory for the public health crisis of loneliness and social isolation in the US. For the past three years, it’s been one of the defining experiences of American life: Shut inside during the pandemic, we’ve emerged into an even more antisocial society, one in which health care is still only afforded to the rich, one where working mothers are under ever-greater pressure, where non-sentient technology is prioritized over the human labor it depends on.

When people ask how to get involved in their communities or make new friends, the typical response is something like this: Join a club! Take a class! Hang out at cafes or bars and strike up conversations! The problem with that advice isn’t that it doesn’t work, it’s that the idea of “community” in modern life is usually tied to something that costs money — a lot of it. In an age of declining religious affiliation, more people are turning to, say, pricey fitness classes as a means of fostering relationships, leading to what one researcher refers to as the “privatization of community.”

Harvard Kennedy School Fellow Sam Pressler studies the ways in which financial, geographic, and cultural shifts have replaced previously accessible spaces and institutions with inaccessible, expensive ones. In neighborhoods full of college-educated people with disposable income, this leads to lots of pay-to-play activities that offer the promise of community for a price, like SoulCycle, pottery studios, and pricey cafés and bars. Poor neighborhoods tend not to have such amenities, nor do they have affordable, accessible “third places,” leading to stark divides in the social connectedness of the rich and the isolation of the poor.

In our interview, we discuss how issues like loneliness and civil participation actually begin at birth, why there’s such a decline in third places, and the smartphones of it all.

How did you first become interested in the privatization of communities?

I’m not a traditional academic: I spent my six years after undergrad building a nonprofit called the Armed Services Arts Partnership, or ASAP. We work with veterans and the military community and reconnect them to a sense of belonging, purpose, and translatable skills in civilian life through community-based arts, programming classes, workshops, performances. The veteran space gets a lot of funding to meet the needs of purpose and belonging because we [view] veterans as a class of citizens deserving of that investment.

But all these issues are not just veterans’ issues. They may be a little bit more acute because of the abruptness of the military transition, but these are very much human issues that other people in American life are experiencing. So after I handed that organization off, I took a graduate fellowship at Harvard, where I researched this topic.

What are some of the structural reasons we have so many more privatized communities than we used to?

One is the decline of institutions that provide meaning and relationships in life: religion, secular civil society, unions. People who live in more distressed places tend to have weaker institutions, and a lot of the accessible institutions and experiences of American life have been replaced by those that have higher barriers to entry, whether that’s geographically, culturally, or financially. You can apply that to every stage of life.

The kind of associational life of the mid-20th century had its flaws, but Robert Putnam’s research seems to indicate that organizations like the Lion’s Club, 4H, or YMCA were fairly cross-class communities. Theda Skocpol in particular describes the process of how the highest-socioeconomic status people began pulling away from those institutions in the latter half of the 20th century as we begin to live in increasingly sorted regions and neighborhoods. Over the past half-century, the proportion of families living in poor or affluent neighborhoods doubled while the proportion living in middle-income neighborhoods declined by more than one-third. This increasing geographic isolation of the well-off means that a growing proportion of society’s resources are concentrated in a shrinking proportion of its neighborhoods.

Where does that leave us? How are these shifts affecting us on a societal level?

There is a cumulative and compounding disadvantage that occurs among people with lower socioeconomic status and the children of people without degrees. In childhood, we have the residential sorting of our schools (if you go to school in Palo Alto, you basically have to afford a $3 million or $4 million home). Schools in our sorted, high-income neighborhoods have become exclusive, but then school activities have become pay-to-play. Robert Putnam has great research on when activities become pay-to-play — like travel sports teams and extracurriculars — it’s lower socioeconomic status people who stopped participating in those activities. One study he cites found that, prior to the institution of fees for sports, roughly half of all kids were playing sports. When fees were introduced, one in three athletes from homes with annual incomes of $60,000 or less dropped out due to the increased cost, compared to one in 10 athletes from families with incomes of over $60,000. You’re cultivating habits of social connection, and if there’s not easy access to a Boys and Girls Club or whatever it may be, they’re losing that attachment to institutions and also the social connections that come with it.

The adult transition is really interesting. In American life, it really started after World War II when all these young men were called to serve and were having a shared experience across class and connected to an institution. By 1960, 40 percent of men over age 18, and the vast majority of men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, had military experience. We created the GI Bill after World War II as a means of broadening access to college beyond just the aristocratic. \

But in a kind of perverse way, college has now become the replacement for that adult transition experience. College, particularly, is reserved for mostly selective four-year schools, and it’s mostly for the top 20 percent of earners’ children. Approximately 50 percent of students at the most selective colleges (480 schools) come from the top quintile of earning families, and among “Ivy-plus” colleges, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution (14.5 percent) than the bottom half of the income distribution (13.5 percent). We took this cross-class experience for men and replaced it with one that is pretty sorted by class and mostly reserved for the most well-off kids. In college, you build your social networks, you foster habits of attachment, and it follows you afterward. We don’t have an alternative pathway in American life for people who don’t go to college, so if you just enter the workforce, you don’t have that institutional [backing].

When we get to adulthood, this is where we see neighborhoods that are sorted by class, where the “third places” are maybe a nice coffee shop or maybe it’s Soho House, where you have to pay $200 a month to be a member. A lot of adult activities have become very much tied to your socioeconomic status. Going to CrossFit could cost $250 a month, or SoulCycle founded this idea of “peoplehood” and making friends while using the SoulCycle revenue model. You get to the point in adulthood where all these things are compounded, and folks without college degrees or of lower socioeconomic status generally are not participating in community as much. They have much lower levels of friendships and social connections than those with degrees.

Third places are so much more difficult to find now, and the ones that do exist, as pointed out in this piece in the Atlantic, are often “either too expensive for the average American or apparently designed to disincentivize lingering.” The examples the author gives are like, faux dive bars that are secretly really expensive or corporatized public spaces like the High Line where you’re encouraged to move quickly through them. How are these kinds of not-really third places affecting communities?

There’s good research from this guy named Dan Cox at the Survey Center on American Life that shows that people who actively go to a third place, whether that’s a public third place like a park or a more private third place like a coffee shop, tend to have higher levels of social connectedness and lower levels of loneliness.

From a very clear social interaction perspective, [third places] are super important. Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People talks about the role of parks and libraries that are open to everyone and have the incentive of serving the public. A lot of the cool third places that I’ve seen oftentimes are tied to religious groups, like coffee shops that are open to all but tied to a church. Homeboy Industries is a good example in LA of a third place run by former gang members and meant to be a community hub. There’s an interesting opportunity from the public perspective of, like, libraries doing yoga programs, workforce development programs. There are definitely examples out there, but to run a coffee shop in Palo Alto, California, which is where I am right now, it’s like, your real estate costs are so expensive that the type of people who are gonna go there are only young people who have the disposable income to spend $6 on that drink.

From what you’ve said, it seems like those people are the least in need of this kind of community.

In these places, there’s a number of fitness classes you can participate in, there’s a number of arts programs, like improv class, you could pay $250 for it. You have this clustering of opportunities for participation in some places, and then in others, you have civil society deserts.

Something that I think a lot about, which feels somewhat related, is how young people are more depressed and lonelier than ever, and how much of it has to do with smartphones. I tend to believe that when you have a facsimile of community on your phone, you’re less likely to seek it out in public spaces, or rather, it gives you an excuse to stay home and not participate in society. Is there a link between that and socioeconomic class as well?

There is really good data on screen time spent across different devices between lower socioeconomic status kids and higher socioeconomic status kids. What you see are the lower socioeconomic status kids who are not participating in real-life community or extracurriculars as much are spending way more time in front of screens. That’s research that’s been going on for decades — it used to be TV, now it’s phones and video games. But that has held as technology has changed. The more recent research that’s coming out around the issue of social media is with the comparisons. And then if you’re not on social media, then you feel left out, so it’s a double-edged sword.

The key point that comes across from the research I’ve done is really thinking about this as a life course issue. Not just a one-phase-of-life issue, which I think is oftentimes how it’s framed. But really, there are compounding cumulative disadvantages that happen at each stage of life, and your disadvantage in childhood makes you less likely to be able to have the attachments and the social connections after your transition, which then makes you less likely to have the attachments and social connections in adulthood. There are a lot of contributing factors to isolation and loneliness, but social isolation looks largely to be by class lines. This is a big issue and there is no one right answer to address it, but part of it is nudging our culture away from individualism and toward collectivism. I’m not saying full collectivism — there are huge dangers in collectivism — but nudging a little bit toward collectivism, and fostering this type of cross-class engagement. We all lose something when we’re not engaging across differences, be it racial difference or class difference.

Have you been finding any cool ways that people are developing cross-class sections of community?

There’s a great guy in Portland, Maine who used squash as a hook to intentionally build a cross-class community, starting with squash programming as an accessible extracurricular activity for youth, then building adult programming around it. We can look at what the veteran community has done over the last 20 years, where a lot of the post-9/11 veterans said that instead of going to the VFW and sitting around drinking, they want to be active and involved in their community, be it service through groups like The Mission Continues or physical activity through groups like Team Red, White, and Blue. The military is one of the few cross-class institutions left in American life.

What makes me most hopeful is that I think the conversation has meaningfully shifted in elite circles and national media. I think that’s been a result of the pandemic: You had people who typically were very active in their community and had a lot of connections not being able to do that and realizing how that feels. I also think there’s the role played by Trump’s election. If we have large parts of the country where people are disconnected from community and from other people, that could be fertile ground for more authoritarian impulses.

As a result, you’re seeing things like the Surgeon General’s advisory on loneliness and social isolation, which I think is really meaningfully advancing the conversation. You’re seeing more philanthropic groups focused on this issue. There may never be enough, but people are taking it seriously as an issue. When I was first starting my organization, people would say, “You either need to do direct mental health services or direct employment.” We have to understand that community is the connective tissue between those things and your mental health and your ability to retain a job. If you don’t have a supportive set of social connections in a supportive community outside of that job or outside your home, you’re going to be worse off. Now it seems like there’s a collective recognition of that, from a policy perspective, from a philanthropic perspective, even from a media perspective. That feels to be a step in the right direction.

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