Effect Measure

Old dogs, new tricks, close confidants

I’m on record here as being very optimistic about the younger generation. Perhaps it’s conceit. They remind me of us (sixties era and even before). Still, there is no shortage of older folks who are condemned to repeat history by bemonaing how the young ‘uns have gone to the dogs. And the world is going to hell in a handbasket with them. Academics are just as prone to this nonsense as anyone and in 2006 the mainstream media, enablers of whatever conventional wisdom floats their way, were talking about how sociologists were revealing that people were increasingly isolated (“bowling alone”) from each other:

Whereas in 1985 Americans reported that, on average, they had 2.94 friends or family members with whom they could discuss important matters, by 2004 that number had dropped to 2.08. A quarter of Americans had no close confidants at all.

Those findings were startling to the study’s authors, who are sociologists at Cornell University, Duke University, and the University of Arizona. Their paper, which appeared in the June 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review, included a section titled “Could Such a Large Social Change Be Real?” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Any social survey can be flowed but this one was from the General Social Survey run by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center since 1972. It’s no fly-by-night affair. Still, the information seemed discordant with past data and internally inconsistent to Claude S. Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on social networks. Already a small software error has been found that allowed 41 non-responses to be coded as zero social confidants, but this isn’t sufficient to explain the findings, so other explanations are being sought. One has to do with what survey researchers call “context effects,” essentially involving the surrounding questions or position of questions in a questionnaire:

The questions about social networks, Mr. Smith said, came toward the end of a long survey, and were immediately preceded by a series of questions about organizations that the respondents belong to. For each organization they named, the respondents were asked four or five minutes’ worth of detailed questions about the organization’s activities.

After that experience, Mr. [Tom Smith, survey director] said, it is possible that some respondents said “no” or “zero” when they were asked about personal confidants, simply so they could speed the survey toward its conclusion. (He added, however, that he is not certain that any such thing occurred. It is possible, he said, that the study’s analysis is basically fine, after the 41-person error has been corrected.)

These questions have been raised in a working paper by Fischer and will soon be published in the peer reviewed literature. This is all part of the “sorting out” process that is normal for scientific and scholarly research.

Meanwhile, here we are tapping away at our keyboard, communicating with a fairly large daily audience spread out around the world. Some of you have gotten to know us and each other electronically through the medium of this blog, and I know off-blog correspondence between some of you is common. How do we evaluate that? That seems to me a vast widening of social contact past any we have ever had. Yes, it’s not the same kind of contact. But it’s not inferior. It’s just different. Moreover digital communication and texting have allowed young people to arrange spontaneous face to face meetings with friends (“I’m downtown; meet me at the bookstore in ten minutes”) or get meetings together for political social purposes that would not have happened without it. My daughter, a mother of two, is in regular contact with friends from her highschool days through Facebook. Last week I got an email from someone I haven’t seen in almost 40 years because he got my contact info from someone else I haven’t seen in person for even longer, although we are in contact electronically, thanks to an old friend I haven’t seen for thirty years.

I have high hopes for this generation. I think they are more interconnected, more aware of the world and more open and communicative with a wider variety of people than any generation in history.

I’m glad to be part of it. Just as “on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” on the internet no one can see you are an old geezer. Maybe I’m not. How would you know?



  1. #1 Jonathon Singleton
    October 4, 2008

    Revere, the younger generation aint stupid and can see how the Babyboomers have — yes, HAVE — created a terribly violent society… In Australia, many gay males in the GenX age bracket have helped create this paradigm — sucking neo-nazi closet queer cock gets you high paying and stable government and private sector employment:

    H5N1 Blog — Not only H5N1 but also a financial tsunami (September 14, 2008)

    Reader posting excerpt by Jonathon Singleton | September 18, 2008

    Sandra, “We have a very volatile situation going on in America right now and those with even an ounce of common sense can see we’re all hanging on by a thread…”

    Reader posting excerpt by Sandra | September 19, 2008

    “Jonathon: ‘Yes, I really wonder how we will all feel a few years from now if bird flu continues its merry way down the VHS evolutionary road.

    Relieved loved one, relieved.

    As thinking human beings we do realize that something on a grand scale DOES need to transpire in order to get the human race thinking AND acting properly again?”

    :*) woof woof, Revere…

  2. #2 llewelly
    October 4, 2008

    I think it’s all part of a big conspiracy. Aliens gave us internet technology. Know why? So they could invade our social networks. On the internet, NOBODY KNOWS YOU”RE A TEN-ARMED ALIEN SQUID!!

  3. #3 dreikin
    October 5, 2008

    I’d like to point out a couple of things:

    Being _more_ connected is not the same as the _depth_ of connection. Would you say shallow connections with n people is sufficient to replace (in the general case) m deep connections (where m << n)? Many people wouldn't. Why? The internet and mobile tech certainly increases the number and availability of connections, but do they do so at a (statistical) cost to depth? Is it harder to develop confidants if most of your social time is spent online and not interacting with them? Long-distance relationships might be a good measurement for this: Does the viability of such a relationship increase w/ increased 'mediating' technology? Does a significant subset of thsoe in such relationships (aided by tech) match in viability those where the partners are in close proximity to each other? What changes, benefits, and/or impairments might this amount of tech have on the social abilities, skills, and methods of those who make use of such, compared to groups that use them less? Does writing your soul out on a blog (that, often, is only read by a few or even no people) substitute for having a confidant? Post-Secret? Etc.. While it might just be a statistical fluke, I can also see many other reasons for it having occurred - and none of them guarantee that the replacement(s) are adequate (though they could be).

  4. #4 revere
    October 5, 2008

    dreikin: You advance a common point of view (Mrs. R. agrees with you). I am not persuaded by it, however. Measuring the “depth” of relationships is quite vague. It suffers from putting all relationships on a linear order where every relationship can be compared with another via the common measure of “depth,” a measure of relationship currency. You may believe you know what this is and how to order it but I doubt it. Relationships differ not just in quantity but in quality, and by that I don’t mean how deep they are but that they are of different kinds and not comparable. Relationships today are certainly different, or at least have a different mix, but whether they are inferior is another question we can’t settle here. Moreover I doubt very much that the depth, in your terms, has changed much. My nuclear family is widely scattered geographically and I can keep in touch with them now in ways I couldn’t before, plus I have relatinships (of a different kind) with many more people. My world is bigger, wider and, yes, deeper because of it.

    The new relationships the internet allows are not a replacement for others. The people I know who spend a lot of time online have just as much — or as little — contact with others face to face as before, often more. If one looks back over the last century of social psychology literature, the refrain that society is increasingly atomized is a constant one. What is certainly true is that society has changed. There rest is up for discussion, as you and I demonstrate.

  5. #5 dreikin
    March 8, 2009

    (Rereading my old comments to see what I forgot to get back to)
    Actually, I concur with much of what you said – my use of ‘depth’ was meant to be equivalent to your use of ‘quality’.

    And those were honest questions, not hidden assertions – I’d really like to know the answers if they can be found. For various reasons, the mediating technology has been quite helpful on my end, since otherwise I’m quite a recluse.

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