This paper lays out a theory that I have been developing about changes to the structure of community related to new technologies, particularly social media. I contend that the study of community has always been closely tied to understanding the social implications of communication technology. Our understanding of how these technologies have influenced community is based largely on what I have called the mobility narrative. The mobility narrative is the argument that communication and transportation technologies have made it progressively easier for people to overcome constraints of time and space. I argue that two characteristics of recent communication technologies – persistent contact and pervasive awareness – have the potential to break from this historic narrative and fundamentally change how social relations are organized.

Whereas previous communication technologies allowed people to communicate across distance with reduced time and cost, they generally lacked affordances for relational persistence and sustained awareness. That is, as a result of mobility, social ties were often lost at key life course events and as people moved over distances. New communication technologies often described as social media and including platforms such as Facebook provide for persistence by allowing people to articulate relationships and to maintain them over time. Social ties that previously would have been abandoned over the life course as we left high school, changed jobs, and moved from one neighborhood to another now persist online. Maintained through the ambient nature of social media, people have a new, pervasive awareness of the activities, interests, location, opinions, and resources of their social ties.

Visions of modern community often imagine a maximization of mobility to the point where people are nearly free from the constraints of time, space, and social bonds. In contrast, I have argue that persistent-pervasive community renews constraints and opportunities of traditional community structure. As a result of persistence — a counterforce to mobility — relationships and the social contexts where they are formed are less transitory than at any time in modern history. Through the ambient, lean, asynchronous nature of social media, awareness supplements surveillance with the informal watchfulness typified in preindustrial community. It provides for closeness and information exchange unlike what can be communicated through other channels. Social media and the algorithms behind them generate not only context collapse but an audience problem that, when managed through a dynamic balance between broadcasting and monitoring content, enhances indicators of awareness and availability of social ties. Persistent–pervasive community represents a period of metamodernity. It is a hybrid of preindustrial and urban-industrial community structures that will affect the availability of social capital, the success of collective action, the cost of caring, deliberation around important issues, and how lives are linked over the life course and across generations.

You can download the final version of the paper here, or access a draft version of the paper on my website.