Facebook may have 2 billion users, but is that really a community

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Several years ago, I heard a social scientist describe a new organizing framework for our world. Instead of an orientation built around national, state and local relationships, the commentator said our lives are increasingly being organized along global, regional and community lines. I find this reframing useful but worry the framing may not be quite right at the community level. I fear we face a declining, not an increasing, sense of community in our lives.

The word “community” is at once incredibly appealing and exceedingly confusing. Community is where we come together as family, friends, colleagues and citizens.

A community can be geographic, such as a neighborhood. I live in Murray and feel a strong sense of community there.

A community can be topical, such as a business community. My husband participates actively in a woodworking community. All of us have communities of interest that appeal to us and add meaning to our lives.

A community (or pseudo-community, if you think like I do) can be large and cyber connected. Think of the Facebook user community, which now tallies 2.2 billion active monthly users. Or think of your Instagram account and the vast network of connectivity that exists. We spend hours staring at a small screen of photographs, short snippets of information and the 24-hour news cycle.

I worry our virtual, social media interactions may be detracting from our more personal and meaningful associational lives. I worry screen time is replacing family time. I worry Facebook friends are replacing real friends. And I worry our sense of community — real community — is being torn asunder by an illusion of connection through the internet.

How is a “community” as large as the world’s population in 1930 a community in any sense of the word? Isn’t community about fostering rich, meaningful, close and often deeply personal relationships?

Utah Sen. Mike Lee fulfills a national leadership role when it comes to associational life. Lee serves as vice chairman of the Senate Joint Economic Committee, where they have made research on social capital a priority.

In a landmark report titled “What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America,” researchers made chilling observations. Several of these findings were highlighted in a speech by Lee to the American Enterprise Institute. He said:

  • Men and women are having fewer children, and they are also having fewer children within wedlock. Births to single mothers in 1970 represented 11 percent of all births. Today, 40 percent of all births in the country are to single moms.
  • A majority of American children can now expect to live with just one parent before reaching age 16.
  • Americans spend less time in religious associations. Church attendance and trust in organized religion have dropped sharply since the early 1970s.
  • Americans participate less in voluntary associations.
  • Americans are increasingly segregated on the basis of class. Neighborhoods of immense privilege are emerging, while other neighborhoods suffer from a concentration of poverty.

Like me, Lee also takes issue with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg referring to a group of 2 billion people as a community. Lee said, “It doesn’t make sense to describe 2 billion people as a community because community is about meaningful human relationships … and you can only have so many of those.”

Facebook can complement, but can’t replace, the roles that family, neighbors, churches and even Little League and bowling leagues fulfill in our lives.

I worry that in a world that is increasingly connected through social media, we are losing social cohesion. This is exacerbated by the tendency many have to travel home from work in a single-occupancy vehicle, pull into a gated community and drive into a two-car garage attached to their home. I fear these same people retreat to their bedrooms and engage with a screen instead of their family or neighbors.

When societies lack meaningful engagement at the community level, we suffer. Be wary of your social media time. We need to create greater and more meaningful social connection in our lives.