by Robyn Keith
Researchers and media pundits alike wonder what new media are doing to our social connections. It has only become more and more easy to connect (or disconnect) on our commutes. Here in Austin, Capital Metro’s train, and recently introduced MetroRapid, offer free wifi for riders. On my daily commute to campus I’ve noticed (and taken part in) all kinds of device behaviors: watching the latest Game of Thrones episode on a laptop; listening to music, NPR, or guided meditations; checking social media like Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, or Instagram; learning Italian on Duolingo; cell phone conversations that are just a little too loud (“Can you hear me now?!”); and, of course, texting.
Researchers, media pundits, and everyday citizens alike wonder how these new media impact our society, specifically our connections with others and our “social capital.” Social capital refers to the kinds of resources drawn from people’s social networks. Sometimes these resources can be more obvious (like hearing about a job opportunity when your friend posts it on Facebook). Other times, the benefits of social capital are less direct, like being able to walk to and from your bus stop safely. The term has gained a lot of media attention over the years, especially after the publication of Robert Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone, which argued that Americans’ collective social capital had been in decline since the 1960s.
Most research finds that the Internet and other new forms of communication supplement people’s social capital, rather than deteriorating it. But some critics of social media lament the time that people spend on their devices, arguing that we are increasingly “alone together.” Some adopt a nostalgic assumption of the time before social media, a time when apparently everyone partook in face-to-face interactions all of the time.
Of course, we know this isn’t true, especially in the case of mass transit. People frequently read newspapers during their commute in the 1940s, or listened to their Walkmans in the 1980s. These behaviors facilitate face-to-face interactions no more than new technologies do.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the widespread use of smart phones over the last ten years that “me time” during one’s commute could actually become “we time.” Now, I can post something to my sister’s Facebook wall, make plans to grab drinks with friends later via text, or send an e-mail to a colleague (“Sent from my iPhone”); and all of these behaviors boost social capital in some small way. In a sense, it’s a bit ironic that these devices — so frequently denounced as anti-social — actually enable more social behaviors during a commute than before. It just so happens that those we’re communicating with aren’t necessarily those we’re commuting with.
That being said, it is still important that, now and then, we communicate with those who share our plane, train, or bus with us. Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago. Half of the participants were asked to strike up a conversation with a stranger during their train ride, while the other half could stick to the typical commuting norm and not interact with others. Although many of us tend to be wary of speaking (or even making eye contact) with others during our commute, the researchers found that people who talked with a stranger felt more positively about their commute.
When we talk with people (especially strangers) and have positive interactions, we can build trust: a key component of social capital. Additionally, we can learn a lot by talking to strangers. Back in 1975, social psychologist Zick Rubin conducted a study in an airport. He found that people were willing to disclose intimate details about their personal lives to fellow travelers who they understood as “passing strangers.” And this bears out in real life, too. A colleague recently told me about a cross-country airplane trip, and that she and a stranger ended up talking for the entire three-and-a-half hour plane ride. “This woman was totally different than me,” my colleague said, “and it was totally fascinating. I learned all kinds of things.”
So, whether you learn something new from the person sitting next to you or send messages to someone who isn’t: enjoy the ride.