Tilly: A face-to-face

BY ZACH TILLY | OCTOBER 24, 2012 6:30 AM

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The story of two lovers (and their two friends) running away after starting a romance on Xbox Live would be a one-off nugget of wacky news if it weren’t true, reported by many news outlets spanning the globe, and happened right here in Iowa.

If our StarCraft-crossed lovers had run off together into middle-age melancholy, perhaps they’d have learned the truth on their own someday: We don’t talk face-to-face anymore.

Consider the cost/benefit analysis one performs before deserting her or his family to run off with a stranger from Xbox Live. The implication of this decision is that teenage romance, friendship, and conversation are increasingly valuable — rare — commodities.

Cornell University sociologist Matt Brashears published a study last year that found Americans have smaller “discussion networks” — fewer close friends — today than they did 25 years ago. Brashears asked more than 2,000 survey respondents to write down the names of people with whom they had recently discussed “important matters”; nearly half of those who took the survey wrote down only one name.

It’s tempting to attribute our social ills to the changing media landscape. Facebook and texting — so the story goes — have eliminated face-to-face contact and fundamentally changed the way people relate to one another. There’s more to it than that.

In 2000, before the advent of Facebook and the mainstreaming of texting, political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, his legendary book about the decline of America’s social culture. Putnam’s title refers to a striking example of America’s growing reclusiveness: Even as the number of people who took up bowling in the 1980s and ’90s grew, membership in bowling leagues declined.

Something has been amiss in American social life for a long time, it seems. So when four stupid kids risk life and limb for human contact, we should focus less on what it says about them and more on what it says about us.

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