Part 1: Why Now?
"Activities related to smartphones and digital media are linked to less happiness, and those not involving technology are linked to more happiness." — Jean M. Twenge, World Happiness Report
We traded God for Zuck, and it's making us unhappy.
According to the General Social Survey, 7.5 million Americans lost religion between 2012 and 2015, and 30% of Americans say they never attend religious services outside of weddings and other ceremonies (up 3x from 10% in 1972).
By lessening religion's role in our lives due to scandal, dogma, and fingertip access to 24/7 distraction, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Religion at its best provides a shared set of morals and values, meaning, personal transformation, acceptance, a connection to something bigger than ourselves, and community. In order to replace what we have lost, we will need to find modern stand-ins for each of these roles.
In this series, though, we are going to keep our focus on community.
To clarify before diving in: I am not arguing that we should replace churches with clubhouses or that doing so would make us all happy and fulfilled, end violence, and cure depression.
But given the facts of shrinking religious participation and increased internet usage, the rise of IRL Member Communities is one small but growing piece of the solution, a movement towards finding balance between our online and offline lives and towards reconnecting with each other IRL.
Just as we have shied away from religion, Millennials and Gen Z have also shunned the institutions that brought our parents together, from the Elks Club to the country club.
Instead, we're turning to our phones and to social media to fill our leisure time (I'm super guilty, no judgment).
We believed that the internet could replace traditional conceptions of community. We used it to improve the way we shop, search, and work. We tried to use it to improve the way we gather. We failed.
Why are we so unhappy?
In Care of Souls, Angie Thurston, Casper ter Kuile, and Rev. Sue Phillips, write, "We’ve become so isolated from one another that disconnection is killing us. The dramatic rise of opioids, gun violence, and suicide, are yet more evidence that our relationships of meaning are coming apart."
While gun and opioid deaths don't impact most of us on a daily basis, it's hard to escape the growing unhappiness all around us.
In her chapter in the World Happiness Report, The Sad State of Happiness in the United States and the Role of Digital Media, Jean M. Twenge suggests that "Americans are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time."
Why? The more time we spend online, especially on social media, the less time we do those things that really makes us happy, like sleep, sports, and plain-old hanging out with friends.
Taken a step further, in addition to simply displacing in-person time, the lack of face-to-face interaction turns us into assholes.
According to a recent University of Haifa study, "lack of eye-contact was the chief contributor to the negative effects of online disinhibition."
In other words, we don't feel bad being mean when we aren't looking each other in the eye.
A Journal of Nonverbal Behavior study takes a different path to the same conclusion. In the study, 58 pairs played an interactive Prisoner's Dilemma game. "The results revealed that participants were more cooperative when they saw each other than compared to when they could not." The researchers concluded that "face-to-face contact has beneficial effects on prosocial behavior."
In English? It's harder to be rude to someone's face. When's the last time you gave your Uber driver less than five stars after having a conversation with him?
This is why otherwise civil people feel comfortable bullying, trolling, and attacking online. It's why 63 million Americans felt comfortable making a cyber-bully their president when a mere 10 years ago George Bush won based on the fact that people felt they could have a beer with him.
We are more connected than we've ever been, but each connection is worth less.
The Hype Cycle
If the internet makes us so unhappy, why do we spend so much time online?
It's the transitive property. Because the internet is really great at some things, we thought that it would be good at everything.
Our interactions have shifted from almost exclusively in-person to mainly online. If you play this out, you could imagine a world in which we all live 100% of our lives behind our screens.
But that's not how this movie ends.
When new technologies emerge, there is always overhype about the perceived impact that they will have on the world. The pendulum always swings too far, before it swings too far back in the other direction, and finally settles somewhere in the middle.
This is known as the Gartner Hype Cycle.
Once you know about the Gartner Hype Cycle, you see it everywhere.
As recently as three years ago, people predicted that AI would be better than humans at everything in short order. But in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Accenture's H. James Wilson and Paul Daugherty found that, "firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together."
Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were supposed to kill in-person education. But after starting out fully online, many online course creators are adding offline meetup facilitation for students in order to provide better peer-support and fellowship.
And Bitcoin's price chart speaks for itself.
In all three cases, after initially inflated expectations, we move back towards an equilibrium. Digital does what it does best, and analog does what it does best.
The same is true for the internet more broadly.
So on a macro level, what does the internet do best?
There was a time, pre-Amazon, when if you wanted to get a thing, you needed to physically go to a store. Now, you click a button, and that thing will be delivered to you the same-day.
Remember watching the TV Guide Channel? Listings crawled down the TV screen, and if you missed your channel, you had to wait for it to come back around in another five minutes. Now, not only can you find out when anything will be on in seconds, you can watch almost any show or movie when you want, on-demand.
The internet is really good at getting us goods and content, quickly and with little consumer effort.
But just because the internet is good at some things does not mean that the internet is good at everything.
The internet is awful at building community and making us feel happy and fulfilled. Millions of years of evolution have programmed us to interact face-to-face, and a couple of decades on the internet cannot reverse what is hardwired into our DNA.
It's time to Marie Kondo the internet: thank it for what it's given us, and then put it away. Then we can take that extra time and those extra resources and spend them offline, with each other.
It’s time for new solutions. Churches and country clubs aren’t attracting Millennials and Gen Z’s, so the internet is winning the battle for our attention. In order for offline to fight back, we need IRL places and communities that are even more appealing than the internet has become.
Twenge agrees, concluding her report on happiness by recommending that, "Going forward, individuals and organizations focused on improving happiness may turn their attention to how people spend their leisure time."
In Part 2, we will meet the new wave of IRL Member Communities that are doing just that.