The United States was once a nation of joiners and volunteers, but our participation in civic groups, local clubs, and houses of worship has plummeted over the past 60 years. We’ve become less interested in conformity and community, more interested in personal identity and expression. Even the baby names we give our children have followed this pattern, becoming increasingly unique and less concentrated over the past 30 years. In politics, this prioritization of the individual has led to smaller government and social policies that emphasize self-sufficiency.
Are we at peak individualism? Is the dynamic between the individual and the community, as old as the United States itself, about to change direction? Trends like these are notoriously difficult to detect early on, but there are signs that a shift is indeed underway. Our relationship with digital media offers a few suggestive signals.
Grassroots Organizing Goes Online
Grassroots Organizing Goes Online
For years we’ve been inundated with reports showing how social media amplifies the power of individuals, fueling isolation, spreading misinformation, enhancing political tribalism, and degrading our ability to concentrate. But our relationship with digital media isn’t that simple. Several recent studies, for example, have challenged the widely accepted notion that more time on social media results in less in-person socializing. Also worth noting: between 2014 and 2019, the percentage of global internet users who said sharing details of their private lives is a key motivation for using social media declined from 27% to 20%.1 At the same time, we’ve seen sharp increases in:
Social media-fueled activism. Thanks in large part to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, more than 15 million people joined racial justice protests in 2020, making it one of the largest social movements in U.S. history. Just in the past five years, three Gen Z-led advocacy organizations—March for Our Lives, Voters of Tomorrow, and Sunrise Movement—have built enormous social media followings and used them to organize widespread in-person protests. Climate activist Greta Thunberg similarly used Instagram and Twitter posts to turn her singular protest at the Swedish parliament into the Fridays For Future movement that inspired millions to protest around the world. Three in four young Americans today credit social media for allowing them to find supportive communities and raise awareness about issues people otherwise wouldn’t know about; 77% say they visit sites like Reddit to discover new things while 66% do so to find people with similar interests (see Figure 1).4
Virtual labor organizing. More than 250 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since December 2021, as workers used texts, Zoom, the GroupMe app, and social media to organize across dozens of states. One recent study found that drivers for ride-hailing platforms who had more frequent interactions with other workers in online communities had more interest in joining a drivers’ union. Approximately 71% of Americans now approve of unions, the highest that number has been since 1965.7 During the 9-month period ending in June, the number of union petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board rose 58% compared to the same period in 2021. These efforts are also succeeding at a higher rate, with unions winning more elections last year than in any year since 2005.9
Protocols gaining ground on platforms. Federated services like Mastodon, Peertube, and Friendica have seen a surge in interest and new accounts in recent years. Often collectively referred to as the “fediverse,” these services are built with open-source software protocols that can give users greater control over who they’re interacting with, and the content being shared. While accurate user counts can be hard to come by, one estimate found the fediverse grew from about 600,000 users in early 2019 to 4.5 million in late 2021.10 And that doesn’t count the more than 1.5 million users Mastodon added since Elon Musk acquired Twitter in late October.11The growth of this ecosystem can’t solely be attributed to people reacting to the perceived politics and business practices of big social media platforms. Many are just seeking a better environment for making new connections and building communities than the walled garden approach that now dominates.
Why It Matters to Fidelity
Why It Matters to Fidelity
These are nascent trends, and big cultural changes are neither sudden nor mechanical. That said, understanding how and why connections are being made and communities formed online has real value for society. The increased sophistication we’re seeing in the use of digital tools to coordinate group behavior is worth paying attention to because:
Meaningful connections are being digitized. We’re unique as a species in the extent to which we are willing to reach out to strangers for support with everything from raising children to handling our money. So it makes sense that meaningful conversations among strangers are already playing out online. More than 23,000 people now belong to the subreddit r/STD where members share stories, ask questions, and raise concerns about sexually transmitted diseases. One recent study found social media allows young adults with cancer to both connect with peers in similar situations and feel validated about their treatment and life concerns.12 Another found that Black Twitter, a community of users who use the service to talk about Black culture, has become an important online meeting space, even describing it as a modern-day Green Book in its ability to warn users about racism in different communities.13
Digital networks are strengthening real-life connections. A large majority of teens now say that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends and more supported during difficult times.14 A 2020 survey of leaders of groups on Facebook found that the groups generating the greatest sense of belonging were those with between 25 and 100 members that also had ties to the local community where members lived. Those who identified a community that meets in real life as their primary Facebook group were more likely to have been members for more than 5 years.15 This desire to connect digitally and in person is also changing the way younger people worship. A recent study found that 32% of millennials in the U.S. and Canada turn to digital religious or spiritual activities each month. But just 5% do so without attending in-person services.16
Trust is being rebuilt. Surveys repeatedly show Americans have a love-hate relationship with social media. We highly value the communities we’ve formed on these platforms but are losing trust in the companies running them. Indeed, every major social media platform experienced a decline in user trust over the past year.17 This is leading people to gravitate to digital networks where there’s less misinformation and toxic content and more cooperation and authentic connections. Gen Zers, for example, now say they trust online community sites like Reddit almost just as much as traditional news sources, and a lot more than social media sites.18
2 The era of We and the rise of online communities. (n.d.). https://www.redditinc.com/
4 Abel |, N. (n.d.). Young Americans Cite Respect, Dignity, Tolerance as Core Values, New Poll Reveals. American University.; The era of We and the rise of online communities. (n.d.). https://www.redditinc.com/
6 Maffie, M. D. (2020). The Role of Digital Communities in Organizing Gig Workers. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 59(1), 123–149.
7 McCarthy, J. (2022, August 30). U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965.Gallup.com.
8 Correction: First Three Quarters’ Union Election Petitions Up 58%, Exceeding All FY21 Petitions Filed. (n.d.). National Labor Relations Board.
9 ANALYSIS: Biggest Influx of Union Workers Isn’t From Starbucks (1). (n.d.). News.bloomberglaw.com.
10 What on Earth Is the Fediverse? (2022, May 9). Lawfare.
11 How to Quit Twitter—Safely. (n.d.). Consumer Reports.
12 Lazard, A. J., Collins, M. K. R., Hedrick, A., Varma, T., Love, B., Valle, C. G., Brooks, E., & Benedict, C. (2021). Using Social Media for Peer-to-Peer Cancer Support: Interviews With Young Adults With Cancer. JMIR Cancer, 7(3), e28234.
13 Klassen, S., Kingsley, S., McCall, K., Weinberg, J., & Fiesler, C. (2021). More than a Modern Day Green Book: Exploring the Online Community of Black Twitter. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 5(CSCW2), 1–29.
14 Connection, Creativity and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022. Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (2022, November 16)
https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/11/16/connection-creativity-and-drama-teen-life-on-social-media-in-2022/. 15 The Power of Virtual Communities. (n.d.). Virtual-Communities.thegovlab.org.
16 Wilkins-Laflamme, S. (2021). Digital Religion Among U.S. and Canadian Millennial Adults. Review of Religious Research.
17 Digital Trust Benchmark 2022. (n.d.). Insider Intelligence.
18 The era of We and the rise of online communities. (n.d.). https://www.redditinc.com/