Evolution of "Community"
While the textbook definition of community is a "unified body of individuals," the term can have "different meanings across [different] groups." Community can be a family or group of friends, or it can be a "social infrastructure" like a school, a park, or any other communal organization. America also has geographic communities categorized as urban, suburban, and rural. What has changed over the last 20 years is the composition of these various communities and their platform, as well as how they interact.
The Changing Definition and Appearance of Community
- It is interesting to note that in an ecological sense, the scientific definition of community has changed over the last 20 years from generally meaning "all of the organisms in a prescribed area" to including various nuances in "space, time, taxa, and trophic characteristics." The social definition of community has evolved in a similar fashion with 54% of Americans saying that the country has become "a better place to live" due to the increasing diversity of "different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities."
- American communities have become much more diverse, but they have also become increasingly polarized over the last two decades.
- The relative value of traditional community pillars like religion has also evolved in the US. Communities that identify as conservative "are 42 percentage points more likely" to consider religion important than those that identify as liberal.
- The most significant change over the last two decades that has contributed to a shift in how communities are built was the introduction of social media. Where most communities twenty years ago developed around brick-and-mortar institutions like schools, churches, and the workplace, today's communities are largely formed online.
- People share photos, updates, and opinions on social media. They use these networks as sources of support and to maintain intimate relationships with followers and friends.
Social Media's Impact on the Meaning of Community
- The social media boom of the last 20 years has allowed people to "share personal information with a broader community of people by posting photos, videos and blogs." A downside to this is that people "present themselves differently" than they would during real-life interaction, which leads to a lower sense of personal authenticity and a decrease in overall self-esteem.
- Six Degrees and Friendster were the first two social media networks launching in 2001 and 2002 respectively. MySpace was arguably the most popular social media community when it debuted in 2003 until Facebook rose to dominance in 2009. Twitter entered the mix in 2006, and Instagram followed suit in 2010.
- To illustrate just how powerfully social media has changed the way community looks over the past 20 years, only 5% of American adults used some form of social networking in 2005. That number rose to 53% by 2012 and 72% by 2019.
- While social networking communities have grown larger, the number of real-life relationships in America has shrunk. As of 2019, "the average person in the US has only one close friend."
Declining In-Person Interactions
- Cigna conducted a 2018 survey revealing that 46% of Americans feel isolated and alone. This survey also found that people who have "frequent meaningful in-person interactions" are less likely to suffer from feelings of loneliness than people who "rarely interact with others face-to-face."
- Americans have mixed feelings about the pros and cons of digital versus in-person interaction: 53% of adults see it as a positive way to "keep in touch with like-minded people," while 39% think it "isolat[es] people from their neighbors and local businesses" thus "weakening the sense of community."
- Despite the decline in real-life interaction, people are still "84% more likely to trust a referral or recommendation when it comes from a friend."
Face-to-Face Interaction and Generational Divides
- Baby Boomers prefer communicating in-person or via telephone despite being computer and email literate.
- Interestingly, Gen Xers have had the strongest change of heart regarding the impact of America's digital communication surge. In 2014, 80% of Gen X believed that the internet had a positive impact on society. Just four years later, that number dropped to 69%.
- Millennials appear to have the strongest aversion to in-person interaction compared with other generations. 55% of millennials prefer messaging apps and 28% prefer email over face-to-face communication. They are also not particularly enthusiastic about answering phone calls.
- Surveys have shown that real-life interaction is making a comeback with Gen Z. This generation is not as "social media obsessed" as millennials. They are 23% more likely to shop in-store than online, 77% prefer printed reading materials over digital books, and 59% distrust Facebook with 34% of them abandoning the platform entirely.
We began by searching trusted media sources to examine what community looks like today in the US compared to how it looked twenty years ago. We then expanded our search to include industry journals and academic databases to evaluate how the definition of community has changed over the last two decades, as well as how this has impacted the way communities develop and interact. To determine how in-person interactions have evolved, we looked for surveys and data collection from sources like Pew Research. We synthesized the information we found into our findings.