Leaving the village

by James Somers, May 8, 2011

I’m starting to think that high school was the ideal social environment.

Like most high schoolers I had a social network best described as a series of concentric circles, or maybe fuzzy overlapping halos:

  • A group of just enough very close friends to fit around a single table at lunch
  • Another handful of chums who I didn’t see as often outside of school
  • About a classroom’s worth of happy acquaintances who I talked to on a regular basis
  • The rest of my 120-person class
  • The rest of my school

The key was that I interacted with these people every day. We were in the same building together for hours. And not through any effort on our part—we were actually forced into the arrangement.

I can’t emphasize how important that is. Socializing in high school was easy and continuous. Whether you were in class, on the bus, playing sports, eating, walking the halls, or lounging, you were engaged with people you had come to know well. In intervals of roughly an hour, the circle of people immediately around you—the classroom, team, whatever—was shuffled, but always chosen from the same distribution. You had a healthy balance of variety and stability.

That mode of interaction turns out to be quite natural. We’re told that 150 is “the estimated size of the typical neolithic farming village,” “the splitting point of Hutterite settlements,” and “the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity.” This is how people have evolved to operate: in a village. In a stable community of a hundred or so people with multiply intersecting sub-communities.

High school was a village. College wasn’t. Consider what my network looked like at the University of Michigan:

  • Miscellaneous

In the Miscellaneous category were all sorts of individuals or small groups I was close with at a particular time or in a particular context. There was the hall from my freshman dorm, the Indians who I drank and sang and smoked with (shisha and cigarettes), the ping pong kids, the kids I stayed up with playing Scrabble, that house I spent too much time at, my Jimbo Jeopardy opponents, the group I studied with junior year, the guy who I helped with game theory problem sets, the kid I played beer pong with over the summer, a former TA and squash partner, the guys I’d meet for beers and complex systems talk, people I saw in more than one class, the kids on my basketball team, etc.

These little unstable clusters would intersect from time to time, or drift, or break apart. There wasn’t much order to it.

We certainly never all came together under one roof. In fact, excepting the handful of people I lived with, spending time with people I knew took work. Not a lot of work, but some: I had to make plans, set up lunches, suggest parties to meet at. For the first time in my life I had to nurse relationships—or watch them fade.

After I graduated my network became even more fractured. My friends moved all around the world, strewn quite unpredictably into new cohorts in New York, Boston, Chicago, Ann Arbor, California, Dubai.

Two years out, I’m sharing a New York apartment with four friends from my high school lunch table. Outside that core my social life is an impoverished mess.

The first problem, of course, is that most of my friends don’t live here. To see them I have to travel. And I would most certainly give up those wonderful weekend trips with free lodging to have more friends within walking distance.

It also doesn’t help that my friendships now are structured just like my friendships in college—that is, without much structure at all—except that now everybody has a lot less free time. My friends are in serious jobs or graduate programs. They have to wake up early. They spend weekends with their families or girlfriends. It’s no longer easy, or wise, to blow six hours playing video games talking about Foucault, or whatever it was we did so much of in college.

Nor is there any longer a central peg, a cafeteria or classroom or dorm or library that we all might share in spite of our multiplex associations.

One rather large caveat is that I haven’t yet worked in a normal big office. I’ve either been at tiny companies, or worked from home, or spent half-days in-house as an independent contractor.

But I doubt I’d find what I’m after in the workplace. My friends with regular day jobs seem to enjoy their coworkers, and socialize with them, but still they spend most of their free time with “real” friends instead of “work people.” Probably this has to do with age differences—the work troupes my friends are in have just a few young people each; youth is spread across the firm.

For all that, though, I do know some people who manage to keep up a very rich social life. They’re gregarious. They put a lot effort into it: they call friends for coffees and drinks and dinners and all those little two-hour blasts of adult conviviality. They flit from group to group, attending to the ones they haven’t seen recently, putting air under the juggling balls that were about to fall.

But even in the best case an especially social young New Yorker might see each of his fifty or so friendly contacts an average of once every three weeks, or something like that, compared to the every day he would have seen them in high school.

You might say: way it goes, bud. We live in cities now, not villages. We run in cliques, not tribes.

Indeed I feel like I’m up against serious structural forces. I feel like it’s normal to split one’s day between intimates and near strangers, or to spend less than a couple hours per day just shooting the bull. I feel like the sort of track my friends and I are on is cutting against the sort of community I want, which is my community, my entire wonderful society of friends, all close and spending time together.

I guess I’ll have to wait for a wedding.