You Don’t Live in the Twitterverse: a Plea to Ground Yourself in Place

A local network. Image by See-ming Lee via Wikimedia Commons.

He surely didn’t know it, but journalist David Dobbs recently put his finger on a problem that’s been bugging me for some time. Writing in his Wired blog, Dobbs made the observation that,

In my own life, many if not most of my most vital social connections — bonds of mutual benefit and regard — are with people outside my local geographic communities.

Dobbs made these remarks in a piece about Dunbar’s number, a theory developed by evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who defines his eponymous number this way. “It’s the number of people that you can have a personal, reciprocated relationship with.” For humans, the Dunbar number equates to roughly 150 relationships. “You can have extra friends beyond the 150, but they’re not personalized friends…they’re just voyeurs into your little world,” Dunbar says.

Dunbar bases this theory on studies of primates that show a predictable relationship between brain size, group size and time spent grooming or socializing. His research suggests that there’s a cognitive limit to how many meaningful relationships we can maintain and that brain size is a limiting factor.

Most of us don’t need a study to know that we don’t actually have 500 friends — Twitter followers be damned. Still, Dunbar’s theory neatly addresses a kind of relationship overload that many of us encounter in this age of the internet, telecommuting and social media.

What concerns me is how our information networks have enabled us to become hyper-connected to geographically distant communities, while at the same time disconnected from our local ones. Virtual and long-distance relationships can enrich our lives in myriad ways, but I fear that our reliance on them has the potential to erode our physical communities and diminish our sense of place.

Advice from a tree on the Grand Mesa.

Wendell Berry once said that “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Knowing where you are requires being fully present in your place, and you can’t do that when you’re glued to your Twitter feed 24/7 or jetting around in search of face time with connections outside your local community. People who live in a place without inhabiting it are like vacant houses in a neighborhood.  (And if they travel enough, their only presence in their community is their vacant house.)

Dobbs wrote that his many “extralocal” relationships influence,

both what I get out of my town and what I put into it (aside from taxes), and limits how many important relationships I have there. … I can’t possibly invest the time to build yet more relationships there and also maintain the relationships outside Montpelier — New York, Boston, London, to say nothing of researchers I talk to elsewhere — that I need to do the work I love.

I don’t mean to pick on Dobbs, who clearly has the best intentions, and I understand his conundrum, because I once felt the same way.  Then I decided to make a commitment to my local community and force myself to “make do” with local connections. The year that I spent embedded in my community changed my life, in the most beautiful way. I can’t go back, nor do I want to.

By narrowing my boundaries, I expanded my horizons. I live on a little farm in the middle of nowhere. Certainly there are things I can find in my extralocal community that just don’t exist in my physical one, but my search for local connections rewarded me with many rich, satisfying relationships I would have never sought otherwise.

My dear neighbors, Mack and Joann Gorrod.

A couple of retired diplomats my parents’ age have become some of my dearest friends, and I would have never met them had I not joined my local library board. Even my dead-end road has become a source of social comfort. I didn’t know that I needed a friendship with an 89-year-old apple farmer, and yet my life is so much richer for having known Mack Gorrod.

I’m not suggesting that anyone give up those far-flung friends, and I share Dobbs’s need and desire to nurture professional and personal contacts in different time zones. But allow yourself to live too remotely and you miss out on important connections.

Dobbs asks,

If we can handle only 150 substantive relationships, how can we increase and strengthen local connections of the sort Dunbar speaks of here while still maintaining the extra-local connections many of us need to work in an extralocal information economy?

My answer is simple: set priorities. Acknowledge that you can’t be everywhere all the time, nor can you be everything to all people. And then, put aside some of your social capital for your local community.

Friends who ski together, stay together.

It’s about values. When it comes to community, you get what you give. I just completed a three-year term as volunteer president of my local nonprofit ski organization.  I put many, many hours into the job, but I got twice as much in return — a connection to a community, a stake in a group I care about and a chance to make my chosen place even better. Working as a freelance writer can be an isolating experience, and volunteering for the Grand Mesa Nordic Council has given me an opportunity to forge meaningful local relationships in a way that only working toward a shared purpose can do.

As a freelancer, my time is money and I can’t devote too much of it to projects or relationships that won’t pay the mortgage. Yet money in the bank is only part of my wealth, and I’ve come to understand that time spent on community pays important dividends that can’t be measured on a balance sheet.

Making music makes friends.

The good news is that local connections are the easiest ones to maintain, since keeping relationships real requires face time. As Dunbar says,  “In the end, it’s what you do with people” that forges meaningful relationships. Dunbar maintains his social connections by socializing in pubs. I like to cement my friendships in the mountains. I recently spent three days unplugged in the wilderness with a half dozen of my closest friends. No amount of emailing or Skyping could replicate this bonding experience.

There are countless other ways to connect, and small steps can be as meaningful as bigger ones. Introduce yourself to that neighbor you see but have never spoken with. Volunteer for a single task at an organization that shares your values.

A community belongs to those who participate. Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen, half of making a place yours is just showing up. So find your passion and grow your community where you’re planted.

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11 thoughts on “You Don’t Live in the Twitterverse: a Plea to Ground Yourself in Place

  1. Christie,

    I hear you, and I’m not about to question anyone’s decision to invest social capital in their own community. But for myself, I must say that one reason I have invested more social capital outside my local community is that, having invested almost ALL my social capital in my local community for over a decade — and I mean heavily, writing about it, making all sorts of connections, aiding neighbors, working on community projects; I was all in — I felt the returns were less than satisfying for me. Possibly I chose poorly. Perhaps the best way to say it is that my local community and I were not ideally matched, and despite investing much in it, I felt keenly a lack of certain types of connections that are vital to me.

    If I were reading someone else write what I just wrote, I might question — some might question — whether the person really fully invested. I don’t want to go into details because I still live in that place — or rather, must move back there in a few weeks after a year in London. But you trust have to trust me on this. I have a ton at the neighborhood, social, community, school, and state levels, and, despite developing a few really great friendships (and playing baseball with a splendid bunch of people) was frustrated at some fundamental mismatches between the sort of community I wanted and the sort I found myself living in.

    Doubtless this work if your place is the right match, as London now feels the right match to me. But I think it’s a little too easy to say Just invest more. You need to be in the right place. And the right place can be hard to find — and might be on a different continent. Life is complicated.

  2. David,
    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I trust that you have invested ample social capital in your community over the years. It would be easy to say that maybe you’re ill-matched to your place, but I know that it’s far more complicated than that.

    Besides, I think that the way we’ve turned place into a commodity to be chosen and consumed is one of the underlying problems, so suggesting that you just uproot and leave for a better place is no solution.

    I’ve lived in three countries and dozens of towns and the experience has taught me that there is no perfect place. My little town is very far from perfect, but I’ve found contentment here by accepting my place for what it is, and forgiving it for what it isn’t.

    For me, there was something about letting go of the search for elsewhere that helped me find satisfaction in a place that lacks many things I thought I needed. I still do need some of these things, and it’s for those needs that I nurture my elsewhere connections. But without roots in place, I felt homeless.

  3. I have so much to say about this and it’s all contradictory. I think Christie’s right. I think David’s right. I’ve lived in small towns and felt gratified by the depth of my knowledge of and connections to other people; I also found myself staring out the window a lot, just to see if something new might happen. I moved to the city and saw that people just made their own small towns — neighborhood, workplace — that are easier to switch between, plus embedded in all those new cultural things cities are always going on about.

    I think I’m not saying anything very bright. Just as I invested in my small town, I’ve invested a lot in my neighborhood and my university and I’ll continue to. And right now being in regular touch with Heather in Vancouver and Sally in London and Jessa in Yellowknife and all those NYC LWONers and the Colo. LWONers and the SF LWONers seems funny and tingly. This is the non-bright thing I’m saying: maybe you need to alternate at different times in your life, or maybe you need both at once.

    I’ll tell you who I don’t understand though: those guys who travel all the time. As far as I can see, they live nowhere.

  4. Thanks so much for this intriguing post, and the discussion thereof. It ably summarizes an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few years. I started a twitter account primarily to keep up with friends spread across the globe, and now have a (to me) staggering number of followers (who are all these people?!).

    I moved to a smaller town and this is the first time in over 10 years that I know my neighbors really well. I have a chance to serve on the board of local organizations, and know the mayors of both my exurb and the “big city” of Huntsville Alabama where I work. Since I have a small child, this is a great way to feel like I am empowered to get access to resources, and that I can actually make a difference in the community, to use the cliche.

    But…of course I wonder if we’d be better off in a big city like DC or London. Obviously more “resources” in terms of museums etc., but would the relationships be as deep? Is it better for my child to grow up in an exurb and have a big yard, and a neighborhood pool, and lots of driving around? Time to be a kid, as they say? Or would my child be better off seeing more of the world — good and bad — by living in the city? Haven’t resolved this dilemma yet.

    And Ann: two of the key catalysts for me making this move occurred while I was traveling, once at Penn Station NY and once in Santa Fe. Both were “you know what, %^&$ THIS” moments. So I hear ya about the frequent travelers.

    I’ll let someone else pontificate about how Google Plus affects the questions raised here….

  5. I know you mean well, but I can’t help but feel that my own commitments are being questioned, and being questioned a) in a way that doesn’t truly acknowledge how much I invested and b) seeks to press a wide rule upon varieties of individual experience that simply can’t be encompassed in such a wide rule. I could make a thousand arguments about how settling in one community goes against human nature and history. And I DID let go of the search — and found that I could not ignore certain sharp limitations of the environment I was in. It’s not bailing to realize another environment might be more suitable. That recognition and the will and energy to act on it is exactly why humans have thrived and now occupy so many environments. It’s simplistic in theory to think that a single place should serve one and would serve one well if only one invested in it adequately. And I think it’s especially so to argue such to a person who’s done exactly that and found the place lacking. Insisting that I didn’t try hard enough — that’s not a testable hypothesis at this point. Or rather, it was tested, and the results are pretty clear.

    My restlessness isn’t about distraction from Twitter. And grounding yourself makes sense only when you find the right soil. If we all just stayed dug in where we found ourselves, we’d still be in tiny communities in Africa.

  6. I’m in a “meatspace” community where I don’t want to live, working night hours at a newspaper copy desk after my group of suburban Dallas weeklies closed. Even if I worked day hours, would I have much in common with the great majority of people here? No. So, Christine, unless you want me either unemployed or at a 7-Eleven back in Dallas, I’ll continue to give cyberspace priority over meatspace. And, I suspect other people who have undertaken painful relocation decisions in the Great Recession probably feel the same. Especialy if you have a spouse/partner and you’re not reliant on your income alone, Christine, kudos on being able to be involved with a “meatspace” community *you already want to be involved with.* But try not to guilt-trip those of us, who for various reasons, find the alternative route better, or at least less bad.


    And, David, no, you’re right … if not an actual guilt trip, Christine at least seems to be lacking understanding. I have connections with secularists, liberal to left-liberals and environmentalists that I’m simply not going to find in the very “red state” Texas Permian Basin.

  7. To add to my previous comment, which either is still in moderation or else have been rejected:

    Yes IS about values. But, it’s naive, narcissistic, or uninformed, or all, to assume that “meatspace” is the best way for me to share my values. It’s kind of insulting to say that I should look to people with whom I have little in common, many of whom have dug-in diametrically different positions on things like global warming, to “make a difference.”

  8. I still think in this discussion we’re ignoring the tendency of big cities to divide themselves into neighborhoods about the size of small towns. Maybe that implies that people are wired for communities the size of small towns. Maybe it doesn’t.

  9. This is a great discussion, and it touches on a topic that I think many people struggle with. That this conversation is taking place in cyberspace tells me something about the need for the connections and communities that we can form without being in the same place. This isn’t to say that on-line communities are a substitute for physical ones, but they certainly help fill a void and even be the catalyst to foster the types of relationships and communities that we need. Thanks Christie for posting and thanks for everyone else responding.
    What are the signs that I’ve settled in the wrong (or right) place? and decide to put down roots?

  10. I’m not entirely sure about the 150 rule. For example, my brother has something ridiculous, like 3500 friends on facebook. And if it were anyone else, you know what i’d think of it. But he was the district governor of the Lion’s club for Connecticut. This is 3500 people he knows personally. Facebook came much later.

    This rule of thumb is not a brick wall.

    “There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” – Bruce Lee

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