Humans need community. Every piece of our knowledge tells us this. Isolation and loneliness are deadly, like actually deadly. It’s hard to quantify such experiences, but researchers taking stabs posit that social isolation drags down a person’s mortality as much as alcoholism or smoking do. “A 32% increased risk of stroke,” particularly in people above fifty, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US. A Harvard study from the first year of COVID dispassionately reports, “Early mortality . . . depression, anxiety, heart disease, substance abuse, and domestic abuse”—these are, they say, “the potentially steep costs of loneliness.”
Heart disease? Stroke? A risk that rivals smoking and boozing?! As it turns out. Being alone is bad for you—and it’s not all about close family and friends. “Talking to strangers,” says Robert Waldinger, who leads the longest-running study on human happiness, at Harvard, “actually makes us happier. There’s good research on this.” (It’s true, there’s lots.) Even in the initial terrifying days of the pandemic, where few were counselling against physical distancing, the US National Institutes of Health warned of drastic health consequences in the elderly, brought on by “an acute, severe sense of social isolation and loneliness.” And on the other side of generations, the same for young people, among whom anxiety and depression in 2020 was at nearly twice the levels of the general population. In All about Love, bell hooks wrote that we make communities “to ensure human survival everywhere in the world . . . communities sustain life—not nuclear families, or the ‘couple,’ and certainly not the rugged individualist . . . even individuals who are raised in nuclear families usually experience it as merely a small unit within a larger unit of extended kin.” And in that article on that Harvard research above, the one dispassionately reporting early mortality and heart disease? The deck for that article begins so simply, almost AI-like in its awkward irrefutability: “Robust social network is key to easing pain.”
One might say: Okay, sure, loneliness is bad, duh. But is community really the skeleton key to solving it? My argument is not that community alone can nullify these ills. My argument is that community is a vital but oft-neglected sibling of those rarefied entities that keep one away from isolation and despair; it rests right up there with cherished friends, a partner who loves you, a family of some stripe who love you back, a passion or commitment that gives you juice through the days. Few of us enjoy all those things in this life (I currently don’t). But some combo of them makes existence worth living (as it does mine). I want to argue for community’s import alongside them.
I think that even the most private and introverted among us still benefit deeply from community connections; almost everyone knows what it’s like to enter a space with other humans and feel warmth. And, in kind, know that warmth’s absence. When I told my father I was writing this essay on community, he responded, “That’s something I never got. I never found my tribe.” There’s an epic Lana del Rey video where, during the outro, she says: “Every night I used to pray that I’d ﬁnd my people.” Everyone has their own instant idea of what these statements mean.
Okay, and look, sometimes all this is small. Sometimes these communal connections occur in traces, happenstance, serendipity. Sometimes it doesn’t take work. (Activity isn’t always labour.)
Digital spaces are often derided as leading to the breakdown of society, but they, too, are conveyors of community. You can be alone in a room with no wish or ability to physically interact with other humans but still be someone who dips an electronic toe in the river of others. Even if you’re just lurking and not participating. “You can almost feel normal,” says a ghostly character in Emily Zhou’s Girlfriends, about silently watching posts go by online. “Like you’re a member of some chorus, no matter what’s going on with you.” It can mean something. Sometimes it means ugly things, of course. But I’m not always sure we recognize the nourishing parts of these digital spaces. And truly, I think that’s been the case for a long time.
There’s an old comic strip that’s always stuck with me. It’s from Bloom County. 1988. In the first panel, two characters, Opus and Hodge-Podge, are talking in front of a television. Opus is flipping through channels, the remote control going bink bink bink. Opus says, “Cable TV.”
In the second panel, he continues, “Ya know, in years past, one could watch Jack Benny at 8 p.m. every Saturday night and know you’re sharing the same moment with nearly every other American.”
In the third panel, there’s no dialogue, just Opus pressing the remote. Bink bink bink bink bink.
The last panel finds Opus stumbling onto soft-core porn. (Hodge-Podge says, “S’pose we’re sharing this with Carol Burnett?”)
It’s those initial nostalgic comments I’ve always remembered—“one could watch Jack Benny at 8 p.m. every Saturday night and know you’re sharing the same moment with nearly every other American”—along with the image of Opus—a wistful, sensitive protagonist—wordlessly pressing the remote control. Bink bink bink bink bink. It’s that underlying idea: that he used to watch the same show with the rest of the country on Saturdays at eight o’clock, and he got a tiny need met in doing so, but that’s all gone now. In the strip, the setting is spare and darkly lit, as Bloom County often was when it went indoors. The television is outsized and looming in each frame, a reflection of the lonely, detached, then-modern world of the 1980s that its creator Berkeley Breathed clearly saw.
Today, in the 2020s, I think this strip tells us two stories. First, that indirectly connecting with others via mass media is not a unique invention of the digital age. And, second, that mourning the fraying of those connections, to regard the ongoing losses and shifts of mass media as inherently isolating—that’s also an old story, with its own cycles of worry with each new development.
Now: I’m sympathetic to the position that the harms of social media are grim and real, in ways we probably don’t yet quite understand. But I’m skeptical of easy culprits, and I’m skeptical of the oft-repeated idea that today’s digital world is marching us into an isolated doom. (Further, some closer analysis suggests that, at least before the pandemic, loneliness was not a problem getting steadily worse or better.) Social media, smartphones, desktop computers, Walkmans, cable TV, that very same broadcast era with three channels that Opus pines for—they were all blamed at one point as corrosive to the community bonds of the time. A Toni Morrison character in Sula—a novel spanning from the 1910s to the 1960s—laments the invention of the telephone and that new broadcast era of television, because it meant fewer people stopping by the house.
In reference to the strong social ties of nineteenth-century, pre-urban America—those of the barn-raising and midwifing rural variety—Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone: “Some early sociologists thought that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant into the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated.” (A funny quote in itself, as much of Putnam’s book conversely exudes more doomerist Opus-like hand wringing.)
The concern about loss brought by progress is a continuing story, and I would suggest that, in a Janus-like fashion, that concern is usually both relevant and exaggerated. Like: sure, it’s complex, but are we maybe not always losing and gaining here? Because community can be fractured and slippery and seemingly ever at risk of dissolution at the same time that it can consistently regroup and resolder itself, mutate in ever-new fashions, form a balm to meet needs in ways it is difficult to predict or imagine.
I don’t want to oversell this too much, particularly with social media—again, I don’t think we quite understand what that’s doing to us yet. Social trust is low in the United States. There’s evidence that the potential for political organizing on social media, particularly Twitter, has had stultifying effects. Even if loneliness is not a progressively worsening problem, it’s still an enormous ill no individual anecdote can paper over.
And yet: for all the vats of ink spilled on these issues, I wonder if there aren’t also seams of growing light we miss, steady heartbeats of communal well-being that still function. They deserve a bit of ink too.
To shift away from media of any variety: when I lived full time in Windsor, I went through a breakup that took several years. Those weren’t bad years, but it sometimes sucked, and I was often deeply sad, and I spent a lot of time in bars. I didn’t really make friends in those bars. But I was enough of a regular in a few places that I soon consistently felt welcome and watched over, and to this day, there are a handful of establishments where I will walk in and see a person I recognize and they will wave their hand and say, “How’s it going, Casey?”
I never got any of these folks’ contacts, and they never got mine. In retrospect, this suited me perfectly. They weren’t strangers, but they weren’t exactly friends. Often the word “acquaintances” is used to describe that kind of relationship, but they didn’t feel like acquaintances: they felt like community. I think, too, of my grandfather, the one who lived most of his life in his tiny hometown, and even though his later years were spent outside the church, and even though he withdrew from much of town life toward the end, he would still mention to me how, like, the guy who fixed his car said he didn’t have to pay right away, he could pay later, and my grandfather would say, “I just thought that was really special,” in a manner that clearly went beyond money. And I believe he was getting a small need met, in the way his sad, gay, heartbroken granddaughter was getting a small need met entering dark bars to familiar faces a thousand miles away.
I don’t find those interactions to be entirely whole-cloth different from the oft-maligned ones on the internet. Like, okay: as I’m writing this today, in the fall of 2022, I just got an updated booster shot. And days before, I’d posted online, “How are the side effects . . . ?” and both friends and strangers told me their experiences and assuaged my anxiety, and I felt better. Just now, I posted again to add my own experience to the mix, and that feels nice too. (I’m doing fine, thanks, just a tad woozy.)
In middle school, I used to post on video game message boards when I was a weird, bullied, geeky kid, and that community was far better than the one I physically moved into at school. I used to be up at all hours as a teenager, and I’d hope someone on AIM or MSN Messenger was around to talk to—and often they were. I was such a lonely kid, both before and after I got the internet, and I hold no fondness for my youthful memories of being wide awake at midnight, staring at the wall or calling the two friends with cellphones who stayed up late, hoping they’d answer. I hold no fondness for my insomniac childhood, going out of my mind with no outlet—none, zero, nothing—just darkness and blankness. Today, now, I do find it quietly moving, in a way I am only appreciating as I write this, that I can send out a little klaxon call on a platform, and if some of my friends see it and feel like responding, they can, but they don’t have to either. Or even those not-quite-friends I have some loose connection to. (There’s me not using acquaintances again, because I think community is better.)
Aguy just a few years older than me, a fellow Mennonite from the Pembina Valley, told me he’d once worked for CKMW, the country music station that serves the region. He worked evenings back then, and at about 11 or 11:30 every night, he’d get phone calls from farmers making song requests. “We didn’t take song requests,” he told me, “and they knew that, but they needed an excuse to talk. I heard from the same three guys regularly, but others would call as well. They mostly felt lonely. Sometimes they’d cry.”
I think there are forever-ongoing symbioses between technology and loneliness, technology and community. “One could watch Jack Benny at 8 p.m. every Saturday night and know you’re sharing the same moment with nearly every other American,” Opus says. And yeah, that’s true. And there’s a certain melancholy ache to that. But there’s limits to that melancholy’s truth. How many people bond these days over prestige TV? Video games? I always think fondly of when Pokémon Go came out. I’m not a gamer, but walking around that summer, it felt like my neighbourhood had suddenly doubled in size.
Yes, we’ve lost things—good communal things—of course we have. For me, I’ll offer the ritual of renting videos in a group as something beautiful I loved doing, something I weirdly miss in an aching way and which is never coming back. But I find it difficult to believe we don’t always keep finding our own small versions of what Opus believed was lost, re-mutating and gelling into their own kind of salves.
Excerpted from On Community by Casey Plett. Copyright © Casey Plett 2023. Excerpted with permission from Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.