I recently logged onto Facebook, and discovered more than a hundred messages waiting for me. It was, of course, my birthday, and the “best wishes” flooding my inbox came from around the globe and across the social spectrum. Friends and family had sent notes of congratulation, but so had mere acquaintances and near perfect strangers. Such are the baffling joys of the digital age.
In the ensuing days, I found myself thinking about connections. The ability to maintain and grow social networks has changed wildly in the four-plus decades since my birth. My parents, for example, grew up in an insular Dutch community on Chicago’s south side. The Hoekstra and Sluis clans were large, and they, along with most of their neighbors, attended churches that were the center of their social sphere. People worshiped and worked together. Both my parents attended schools that bound them to other Dutch Christian Reformed kids and, ultimately, to each other.
Shared origins and a catechism knit the Dutch together—a network that preserved their cultural insularity even as they lived and worked in a city filled with Poles, Germans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and Baptists. The family-faith bonds managed to endure two and three generations after the first immigrants had arrived from the Old World. Folks who had never seen a polder or eaten groene haring nonetheless warmed when they learned that a stranger’s last name was Oostma or van Dyke.
My family left Chicago when I was six, departing for Kansas and then Minnesota. Almost immediately, their bonds with Chicago began to wither. Geographic distance and lack of shared experience weakened the ties. Air travel and long-distance phone calls were expensive. Maintaining connections took time and money. The strings that tethered my parents to friends and family on the south side came unknotted.
Nowadays, I rarely meet a person of Dutch descent. I don’t attend church, and my ties to Chicago are, quite literally, in name only.
But I am richer in connections than perhaps my parents ever were. On my birthday, my brother called from New York and we talked for an hour, giving no thought to the cost. Friends in cities as far away as Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., and even Jakarta sent me greetings via text—missives that circled the globe quicker than any card carried by postal workers. And the Facebook messages I received came from myriad sources: friends whom I would see at dinner that night; classmates whom I hadn’t seen in decades; and even a person or two whom I’d met only once, at a conference or a party. Only a handful had names like Heemstra and Oostendorp, but most lacked any tie or understanding of the Dutch network that was so important to my parents’ generation.
Sociologists might suggest my network is riddled with weak ties—people I haven’t talked to in years, people I’ve met only a time or two—but I disagree. Technology has given us the possibility to strengthen even the weakest ties. At root, social networks allow us to maintain existing bonds with friends and families. And at best, they allow us to build new ones—circles that enrich and sustain us even when distances are long and time is precious.