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lonely-crowd

The Lonely Crowd of Social Media

• October 17, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: VLADGRIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

What can a more-than-60-year-old book tell us about Twitter and Facebook?

Nearly 65 years ago, before the first image of Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan was posted to Tumblr and Diet Coke received its first “Like,” Yale University Press published a book written by sociologist David Riesman, with Reuel Denney and Nathan Glazer, titled The Lonely Crowd.

It was accessible and jargon-free. Reviewers hailed it as a landmark study of America’s post-World War II middle class, and literary critic Lionel Trilling called it “one of the most interesting books I have ever read.” Riesman appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and as the 20th century came to a close, the public had purchased more copies of The Lonely Crowd than any other work written by a sociologist in U.S. history.

In it, Riesman classifies all of humanity into three general character types, which emerge at different times depending on a society’s point in history. They are:

1) Tradition-directed: This type, which has existed the longest, is molded by ritual, religion, and routine. Survival is key, familial bonds are strong, and social structures are more or less rigid. The guiding emotion for this type is shame.

2) Inner-directed: This type is forged in an era of rapid economic expansion and technological transition, where novel problems and opportunities are abundant. While parents still inculcate their children with lifelong goals and values, it’s up to the children to navigate this developing landscape as they themselves grow into adults. Riesman credits the Renaissance and Reformation for giving birth to the West’s inner-directed orientation, and assigns to it the now somewhat dated metaphor of a gyroscope, which, once set in motion, maintains its balance despite any external movement. (During World War II, Riesman worked as an executive at the Sperry Gyroscope Company, makers of bombsights and other military equipment.) The guiding emotion for this type is guilt.

3) Other-directed: This type is formed in cosmopolitans where individuals no longer look back at tradition or up to their elders for direction on how to live; rather, they look left and right at their peers. Mass media has eclipsed adult authority as the primary agent of socialization. Advertising, branding, public relations, and the importance of popularity flourish. Comparing the other-directed character to a radar, Riesman argues that people become sensitive to the desires of others and keep in constant contact knowing that these desires are likely to change. The guiding emotion for this type is anxiety.

When Riesman proposed these categories in 1950, he felt that America’s move from a country of production to a country of consumption was shifting the national character away from inner-directed toward other-directed. While people weren’t morally better or worse than before, he argued that the collective standard they either conformed to or rebelled against was changing, bringing about a set of new problems and possibilities.

In chapter 1 of The Lonely Crowd, Riesman describes the then-present situation as follows:

[It] seems appropriate to treat contemporary metropolitan America as our illustration of a society … in which other-direction is the dominant mode of insuring conformity. It would be premature, however, to say that it is already the dominant mode in America as a whole. But since the other-directed types are to be found among the young, in the larger cities, and among the upper income groups, we may assume that, unless present trends are reversed, the hegemony of other-direction lies not far off.

Read today, Riesman’s description of the other-directed character appears to be not the work of an imaginative and celebrated sociologist, but rather a half-hearted observation by anyone paying attention.

Today’s young Americans are thrown into a world where Instagram accounts and YouTube videos must seem as natural as trees and lakes. Maybe even more so. It’s a time when celebrities peddle brands and brands peddle celebrities at full volume on Facebook, and popularity is quantified into the number of Likes and shares and comments and views and followers.

But again, Riesman didn’t think the other-directed character type was somehow inferior. While it certainly has its negatives, it contains positives, too, such as an openness to new friendships, an interest in the unfamiliar, a flexibility to change, and so on. Plus, it’s not like Riesman thought of his character categories in absolute terms, either. There was overlap, and the differences were comprised of degrees.

In the preface for the 1969 edition of The Lonely Crowd, Riesman attempts to clear up persisting confusion over what he meant by other-directed:

[It's not] that Americans today are more conformist—that has always been a profound misinterpretation; and it is not that today’s Americans are peculiar in wanting to impress others or be liked by them; people generally did and do. The difference lies in a greater resonance with others, a heightened self-consciousness about relations to people, and a widening of the circle of people with whom one wants to feel in touch. As the representatives of adult authority and of the older generation decline in legitimacy, young people and the millions who seek to stay young become even more exposed to the power of their contemporaries both in person and through the mass media.

So, given this, what would Riesman have thought of social media? People currently have the ability to feel in touch with others across the country (and globe) at any minute. A resident of San Diego can stay updated on everything about Yellowstone National Park through Twitter. A university student in Colorado can Skype daily with her cousins back in Florida. A Virginia teen might be a self-appointed expert on New York fashion due to his involvement with a robust network of Brooklyn bloggers. In a large sense, people themselves have become the mass media, as the lights beeping on our other-directed radar are brighter and more numerous than ever before. What does this mean for future generations?

LAST SUMMER, RESEARCHERS FROM the University of Michigan found that Facebook use leads to a decline in happiness. Apparently, hours and hours of viewing other people’s personal highlight reel might not be too good for the ol’ self-esteem. According to recent survey results published by Mediabistro, nearly three of four adults have deleted their photos or comments posted on social media due to concerns of repercussions from current or prospective employers. This suggests a constant tension between impressing your friends and a desire to remain employed.

A few weeks back, Vanity Fair published an anecdote-heavy article written by Nancy Jo Sales, author of The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World, about what the profusion of social media and access to online porn was doing to America’s teenagers. For her reporting, she flew back and forth between Los Angeles and New York interviewing wealthy young city-dwellers—the same group of individuals Riesman noted in his 1969 preface was capable of changing the nation.

What Sales found is that all of the teens she spoke to feel bound to their online networks. For better or worse, it’s how they make friends, plan parties, and help shape each other’s taste in music, clothes, and politics. Opting out of this system can result in ostracization.

How does one exercise autonomy in a social media-saturated climate? Or is social media the most obvious and easy claim to autonomy we’ve ever had?

Then there’s Ben Austen’s Wired feature, “Public Enemies: Social Media Is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago,” which tells the story of two teenagers in rival gangs from the south side of Chicago, who were killed after using YouTube and Twitter to boast and brag and spread their respective group’s mythology. Certainly, guns still kill people without the aid of a Facebook post, but, as Austen writes, social media often serves as an easy expedient for insults and conflict.

Yet, while Sales reported a high level of anxiety among community she studies, other research suggests that social media is also capable of much good. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Communication found that smokers who use certain online networks to quit find it much easier to kick the habit due to the sense of community, support, and trust.

And while when many critics are predicting that our tech-obsessed, Internet-crazed culture will end in catastrophe, distinguished journalist Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, believes that simply isn’t true. In an article from last month, Thompson points out that, according to hard data, today’s university freshman are just as coherent and literate as they were in 1986, 1930, and 1917. That’s because they’re constantly writing, he argues, whether in text or status update form.

AS RIESMAN STATES IN The Lonely Crowd, modes of conformity have always existed, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with their existence. Kings have employed soldiers and parents have revoked desserts to ensure that their underlings stay in line. But young people today have tools of expression unimaginable to people a century ago. The power and responsibility held by practically anyone with an Internet connection can often be great.

What Riesman did argue for was autonomy. He urged individuals to find “the nerve to be oneself when that self is not approved of by the dominant ethic of a society.” In the final pages of The Lonely Crowd, Riesman describes “the autonomous” as “those who on the whole are capable of conforming to the behavioral norms of their society … but are free to choose whether to conform or not.”

So how does one exercise autonomy in a social media-saturated climate? Or is social media the most obvious and easy claim to autonomy we’ve ever had? Is a shallow, empty, numbers-driven society as depicted in novelist Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story just over the horizon? Or are we entering a golden age of collaboration, creation, and political engagement previously unseen? While the answer is probably somewhere in between, at least Riesman left us with a guide to help us understand what’s happening until we get there.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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