Have we replaced real friendships and civic participation with Facebook likes and hashtag activism? And are we too far gone to fix it? Here's the expert take on why face-to-face connections are so crucial (particularly now)—and some inspiration to make more of your own.

By Virginia Sole-Smith
Updated March 17, 2015
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Friends in a truck in the country
Credit: Trinette Reed/Getty Images

Late in 2013, Sarah Grey, 34, was going stir-crazy as a work-from-home writer and mom in Philadelphia. “We were just collapsing onto the couch at the end of every day to watch TV,” she recalls. “We never saw friends and barely even talked to our neighbors.” So Grey took to Facebook with a post that has since gone viral: “Starting next Friday, we’re cooking up a pot of spaghetti and meatballs every Friday night and sitting down at the dining room table as a family—along with anyone else who’d like to join us. Friends, neighbors, relatives, clients, Facebook friends who’d like to hang out in real life, travelers passing through: you are welcome at our table,” she wrote. “You can bring something, but you don’t have to. The house will be messy.…This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village.” It was a smash hit. Now the idea has gone global, and on her site, FridayNightMeatballs.com, Grey is inundated with stories of folks following suit. “I’ve realized that all over the world, people are working more, doing what they have to do to get by—and losing connection with one another in the process.” says Grey.

She’s right. The last quarter of the 20th century saw a drop of a third in the number of people who regularly invite friends over and a 58 percent drop in the number who join community clubs and civic organizations (and actually attend the meetings), according to research by Robert Putnam, Ph.D., author of the now iconic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In the 1960s, half of Americans said they trusted other people, even strangers; fewer than a third say so today. And a survey published in 2006 by University of Arizona and Duke University researchers drawing on 20 years of data found—hold on to your hat—that 25 percent of us lack a single close confidant (defined as someone with whom you can discuss “important matters”), while 50 percent of us are just one friend away from social isolation. “And social isolation is a strong predictor of premature death,” says Thomas Sander, the executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, a program of the Harvard Kennedy School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So we’re lonely and less involved, and it might be killing us.

What Happened To Community?

“Members of ‘the Greatest Generation’ [adults during World War II] were much more civic-minded than their children and grandchildren seem to be: They voted more, joined more, gave more, trusted more,” says Sander. Since that time, families have become increasingly scattered. More than 60 percent of Americans move away from their hometowns, and 43 percent leave their home states, according to data collected by the Pew Research Center. We spend more time than ever in our cars, and we’ve lost many of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls our “third places”: the Main Streets, coffee shops, post offices, and pubs that served as central meeting spots in a community but that no longer exist in many suburbs. “Without these third places, we don’t get to know the people around us,” says Oldenburg. “We have no ‘place on the corner’ that can serve as an easy escape. And life without community means a lifestyle of the home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle.”

Why Connecting Matters

Socializing is good for our health, both physical and mental. When we have strong connections, we’re more likely to respond to stressful situations by joining together for comfort and protection. This is especially true for women. Psychologists call it the “tend and befriend” theory, and neuroscience research has shown that it wreaks far less havoc on the nervous system than the more primitive fight-or-flight response. “Other species have thick skin, sharp teeth, quick reflexes, or camouflage to protect themselves,” writes Shelley Taylor, the social psychologist at UCLA who pioneered the theory. Human beings adopted group living as their primary solution to the problem of survival.

And on a physical level? Having a strong network of in-person connections can reduce your mortality risk as much as quitting smoking or booze. And it may have a bigger impact on your health than your weight or activity level does, according to a 2010 review of 148 studies published in the journal PLOS Medicine. Breast cancer patients who participate in support groups report less pain than do those who don’t. And one group of patients with a particularly aggressive strain even lived longer, according to research out of Stanford University.

Face Time vs. “Facetime”

“I would insist that real community is local [and in person],” says Oldenburg. “Most of what we communicate is nonverbal. There’s a wealth of literature on this. You can’t fully understand people if you’re never face-to-face.”

Says Peter Block, a coauthor of Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods: “Facebook can’t substitute for the safety and security that comes from living in a community where your neighbors know your kids’ names.” And it also can’t reinforce the lessons we teach our children about the real world. “Children need hands-on learning experiences to understand certain things. For example, how to treat animals, how to garden, or how to interact with the elderly,” says Block. “That has to happen where we live.”

The Internet has clearly played a major role in the loss of third places. We can Amazon Prime just about anything that used to require a trip to the bookstore, hardware store, or pharmacy. This has also contributed to a loss of “interdependence” within communities, says Douglas Rushkoff, Ph.D., the author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and a professor of media theory and digital economics at Queens College, City University of New York. Back in the day, “communities weren’t just circles of friends choosing to be together; they were people who knew each other as friends, customers, and interdependent suppliers. So Joe sold oats to John, and John made the wheels for Joe’s wagon.” Now, Rushkoff argues, we relate to the big corporations that have replaced those merchants and craftspeople more than we do to individuals.

And online communities can seem to deaden civic participation: We sign online petitions but don’t always show up at the voting booth; we show our outrage over gun violence through tweets instead of real-world protests. “There’s a lot of laptop activism going on now,” says Rushkoff. “It’s better to click on something than to do nothing at all, but it’s a poor substitute for what we might have done [in the past].”

And yet—perhaps we can find some hope in the modern community model of Friday Night Meatballs. “There’s no longer a distinction between online and what we used to call ‘real life,’ ” says Grey. “What happens online is a part of real life.” She uses social media to invite guests to her dinners and to learn about meals inspired by her idea happening elsewhere. So perhaps the Internet can serve as a kind of “fourth place”—one we visit for information, inspiration, and even logistical help, in order to make our physical communities stronger. Sander says we can also make things better “by prioritizing getting together with friends and getting involved in issues we care about when deciding how to spend our weekends.”

Sounds like an idea we should keep talking about—perhaps over meatballs.