In the chat forums of a men’s group I’m in, a commercial chef is setting up a Zoom call to teach sauce making. Guys are posting fitness goals and “receipts” showing completed workouts and milestones. A new member is asking for job advice.
These forums feel so much more constructive than Twitter, which I quit several months ago. I had grown tired of its hyperpolarized hot takes, tattletale media culture, and slavish devotion to the dumbest of news cycles. Dopamine addiction notwithstanding, the decision of where to spend my online time has gotten easier.
An arbitrage of attention is emerging on the horizon. How can we trade low-trust, bad-faith, negative-sum media environments with ones that are high-trust, good-faith, and positive-sum in spirit? It may sound corny, but I’m beginning to believe fellowship could drive the next evolution of social media. By this I mean a move towards more exclusive spaces with stronger ties, greater trust, and shared pursuits.
Fellowship, from the ancient Greek word koinonia, means joint participation. It exists when people come together to pursue a common interest, activity, or experience. Fellowship is not friendship, though friendships may form within fellowship.
To many of us, the idea of fellowship seems quaint, a relic of Shriners and Rotarians on a Main Street that no longer exists. Fellowship was something our grandparents valued. We “network” and “hang out.” Who needs fellowship when we can spill our guts to the world at a click?
The last year under COVID, of course, made clear how naïve this is. We need high-trust tribes and networks. We need bands of brothers and sisters. We need them to face common challenges, grow, and feel connected. Contending with a global pandemic made this obvious, but the need is all over the place—recovering from addiction, losing weight, growing spiritually, or enjoying a hobby. Fellowship is the answer to “bowling alone,” Robert Putnam’s signifier for the collapse of American community.
Fellowship also provides an answer to toxic, bloated social media platforms. Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford, wrote a landmark study in 1973 after finding that the best job leads came from distant acquaintances rather than close friends. The study’s title, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” has become a principle in sociology. The idea is that we benefit from lots of loose connections with other people. “The more business cards the better,” the thinking goes.
“The strength of weak ties” was the theme of the media environment over the last decade. Social media platforms operationalized it on a global scale. Facebook now has 2.8 billion users. YouTube, 2.3 billion. LinkedIn, 740 million.
Today these platforms are at the height of power. They host much of our public discourse, shape it through algorithms and policies, and have more personal data than would have seemed possible only a decade ago. Increasingly, Big Tech platforms are viewed as competitors to governments and threats to civil liberties. The case for breaking up these companies has never been stronger. Even Facebook execs privately admit they have too much power.
Many are coming to regard these platforms as toxic and harmful, due mostly to the same forces that made them compelling—openness, universality, and incentives for outrage. When you think about it, there’s a creepy side to Facebook’s mission to “bring the world closer together.” It’s like a reality TV series where people are forced to live in the same house and fight a lot, and the directors encourage it. To put it differently, these platforms face a Tower of Babel problem. In a world of different cultures, languages, epistemologies, and political beliefs, how close do we truly want to be with everyone on the planet? How much hyperpartisanship and outrage can we handle?
Eschewing Toxic Togetherness
Over the last year, I’ve shifted my time away from open social media platforms to “fellowship spaces”—both online and in person—where relationships develop over shared pursuits. These include a local parent’s group, a fiction book club, and the men’s group I mentioned. I’ve also witnessed the genius of Alcoholics Anonymous, which uses faith and fellowship to help people through recovery. Like everyone, I’ve been on a lot of Zoom calls, and not just for professional activities.
If the last decade of social media optimized weak ties and open discussion, I hope the next generation moves us towards stronger ties and higher-trust environments, forged around constructive pursuits. (Memo to venture capitalists: there’s an investment thesis in this.)
There are signs this evolution is already underway. There’s no better indicator than the astronomical growth of video group meetings. Services like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams have seen massive growth under the pandemic and are anticipated to grow even more in 2021, pandemic or not. Zoom has become a cultural phenomenon that has fundamentally changed behaviors across generations.
Or witness the growth of Clubhouse, the invite-only audio platform that’s barely a year old. Clubhouse has some of the trappings of larger platforms, like overly aggressive notifications, but it’s core focus has a fellowship flavor as its brand name suggests.
Consider, as well, the growth of group messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messenger, the emergence of encrypted apps like Signal, and the broadening uses of collaboration tools like Slack. Blockchain promises to decentralize media even further.
Stronger Ties in Exclusive Spaces
As users migrate to closed spaces, some will view the resulting fragmentation of the information environment as dangerous because it is less subject to control and surveillance. There’s some truth to this, despite the twisted logic. Every change to the information environment brings new risks and implications. The unforeseen consequences of these trends are important to consider.
But as large open platforms become toxic, a move toward more exclusive, fellowship-oriented spaces would be a boon for users, society, and individual liberty. Fellowship is at the heart of civil society. It is the thread that weaves social fabric.
Living under lockdowns this past year has made us value fellowship all the more, hasn’t it? Maybe it is time to recalibrate our time accordingly, online and off.