The longing for belonging
On nomadism, under-clustering, and the value of connector nodes
I moved frequently growing up. I had the fortune of living in nearly as many homes and neighbourhoods as I have years, and in nearly as many cities and countries as I have fingers on my hands. The places that I grew up in were, for all intents and purposes, temporary — a place to live, a place to study, a place to play — and the community, inasmuch as it was one, was a community of others like me, of pre-adolescent cosmopolitans, with passports full of stamps and minds full of stories, without an anthem in the heart and a flag to fly.
Moving, I think, has had a profound effect on my sense of place, or, more precisely, my sense of anchoring, of belonging. I often found myself, as a consequence of motion, floating in place, not rooted in it. The place names a blur, the streets a hazy map of foreign and familiar, and the song of the city a reverb-drenched, crackling orchestral mess, as if Steve Reich had given in to the temptations of SoundCloud rap. Then, without warning, without knowing how, I would find myself coming into touch with a sense of anchoring — an unfamiliarity that felt familiar — and I would feel that I belonged to the ground beneath my feet. The song of the city was suddenly clear, the place names suddenly familiar, and the streets still a hazy map of foreign and familiar.
Those moments of anchoring have always been temporary, the product of overlap, of bumping up against a social commitment, the product of I bumping up against you, of a community bumping up against another. The ground beneath my feet, as it turned out, was never just the ground; it was always a culture of communities and people, intertwined and coexisting, mixing and mingling semi-stochastically, in ways blurry and ways sharp, in ways alien and ways intimate. Despite the motion, there was always eventually a sense of anchoring in place, a sense of anchoring in community, and a diversity of social commitments available to me.
I am indebted to capital-c circumstance for putting me amidst institutions that generated these social commitments: a supportive family deeply invested in creating opportunities for me to engage with worlds outside of school; primary and secondary institutions that structured my social life around classes and a robust ecosystem of extracurricular activities; a tertiary education that did the same, though perhaps with less rigour, despite the quirky Hogwarts-esque house system. Being my cause was the exception, not the rule, because things generative of place, of the presence of a community — of a sense of anchoring — were clustered around me by design.
Upon graduating and moving halfway across the globe, that design folded. My social life was no longer shaped by institutions, but by the individual; the onus — all of the onus — fell on me. The generative forces that had, before, produced my sense of place, my sense of anchoring, became scattered, portable, disparate. My social life was no longer structured around a common, centralising institution, but around the relatively unmoored and unmoored institutions of small, scattered groups: WhatsApp groups, email threads, Discord servers, and a Slack channel. And the local social commitments that I did have were within the relatively small, relatively insular social graph of my girlfriend, who describes a similar experience, and my workplace. The sense of anchoring, the sense of place, was lost — at the very least, much more difficult to manufacture.
I have been articulating this experience to myself, purely heuristically, as perceived under-clustering. By under-clustering, I mean the dispersion of people, communities, resources and ideas in a place, such that the place becomes a space, a thing in which those things coexist but do not interact.1 By perceived, I mean that the experience of under-clustering is qualitative, rather than quantifiable. My hypothesis is that perceived under-clustering is a product of search costs incurred when, or otherwise imagined before, going out into a place and navigating the space of possible social commitments. In other words, perceived under-clustering is an under-valuation of the possible social commitments that arises because of the inaction occasioned by the actual and perceived difficulty of searching for these commitments.
I am unsure of this and if I have the theoretical or practical tools to operationalise this hypothesis and test it just yet. But I think, intuitively, it is correct. My favourite example, to this point, is Reddit.
My favourite posts are those where someone asks a vast public — all of r/helsinki, let’s say — if, for example, anyone would like to grab a beer. The reactions often vary, but a common one — and, admittedly, one I sympathise with — is why. By my estimation, why is an especially likely response, understandably, when the original poster does not say anything about themselves other than the fact that they, a stranger in Helsinki, would like to grab a drink with another stranger in Helsinki. I can also sympathise with the original poster, however. The search costs associated with looking for people with whom you might have a connection with in a place, especially one as large as Helsinki, are high. And in the absence, perceived or real, of low-threshold institutions or spaces that are more effective at reducing the cost of that search, turning to a tie that many — in this case, all — people in the place share and likewise has a widely-participated-in subreddit is perhaps an effective way of finding social commitments, of overcoming perceived under-clustering and finding ground beneath the feet.
For me, for what it is worth, that effectiveness does not outweigh other factors, including the risk, deeply set, of not sharing context beyond an expansive, weak tie — r/helsinki. What I would be interested in, however, is posting to much narrower publics, ones with rich overlap, expansive shared contexts, ones in which the probability of forming a deep social connection is high2, something like — I don’t know — r/helsinki AND (r/formula1 OR r/urbanism OR r/webdev OR r/design).3
This is perhaps a hazy mess of projective conjecture, but I think designing and improving, as well as making it easier for us to provision, bespoke institutions and spaces of a certain ilk — connector nodes — that help us perform this kind of narrow search in alien social graphs, in settings where it is easy to perceive under-clustering or are otherwise under-clustered, is an interesting problem.4 Connector nodes, I think, to the extent that they perform this function, add to the collective non-material capital of a place. They provide a means of trying out new things in the web of social commitments around us, of acting on nudges to the nose, of capitalising on the dense web of social commitments that surround us without taking too many actions that might pull the web too taut. They are perhaps a solution for the perception, for the problem, of under-clustering.
I think back to my high school class’s Facebook group, in which I was administrator — an elected, token dictator — for a lovely group of 200 or so peers. As many as a few years out of high school, I, deposed, would still get notifications of people posting to it, looking for people that would match something like, keeping with the Reddit speak, r/[our high school] AND r/classof2016 AND r/[their city of residence]. Perhaps a silly example, but, in my view, the Facebook group can be thought of as a connector node of sorts. It did not structure itself around a single, common, centralising institution, but rather provided a space in which people could search an extremely narrow space of social commitments, wherever they were in the world, that, due to time and place, would have been difficult to find otherwise.
It is worth noting that the connector nodes that I am thinking about are not exclusively digital. I think of the terrace on top of an architecture school that I briefly attended, which was a nearly-daily frequent5 for me, and in which I developed many social commitments, both meaningful and shallow. It is a place that I went to be around others, to socialise in a way that I cannot, and would not want to, in my own home. It is a place that I went, in part, to find social commitments and to make social commitments, to meet friends and to meet strangers — to poke at the droll of a tutorial, to share in a conversation. The terrace was not a social media platform, but it did something that I think a lot of them do not. It narrowed the search for social commitments to a space that was, by design, more densely cluster than what I might find on the Internet, and more interest-adjacent, because it was full of people living in the same city and studying the same thing at the same school, than what I could find, say, on a uni-dimensional, weakly-tied subreddit.
I think that this example is instructive because it also highlights the limitations of these so-called connector nodes: they are only useful if they are used, and they are only useful if they are used by a community of people with whom you might have a social commitment. It is difficult to find a sense of anchoring, a sense of place, in the middle of a city, in the middle of a space, if the connector node that would help you do that is a terrace on the top of a school that you do not attend. But I think that the example also highlights the fact that connector nodes, to be effective, do not need to be centralised. They do not need to be big, and they do not need to be open to everyone. They can be small, and they can be local, and they can even be exclusive, and they can still be a solution to this problem of perceived under-clustering.6
It is perhaps a silly and naïve thing to say, but I think that one solution to this problem is simply to try to build more of these connector nodes. To build more of these things, physical or digital, that are easy to use, easy to find, low-threshold, and, ideally, low-cost. To build more of these things that are small, and local, and inclusive, and allow us to search in a more narrow space of clustered social commitments, to help us find the ground beneath our feet, to find a sense of anchoring, a sense of place.7
Platforms like Reddit are useful, of course, but they are not effective — and why should they be? — at helping us find narrower publics, ones with rich overlap, expansive, hyper-personal shared contexts, especially those at the intersection of place and interest — for example, r/helsinki AND r/urbanism AND r/tennis. So we end up searching in publics too large, too daunting, too fragmented, that are often too insular, and often just not very conducive to niche, specific, hyper-local social commitments. We can certainly find new ways, and champion existing ones, to discover and access social commitments across much smaller, much more fine-grained sets of communities — those intersections, say, of place and interest, those intersections of place and time, and those intersections of place and interest and interest, ad infinitum. We can find new ways to invest in them — structurally and through social capital, through a combination of nudge and shove and more nudge — so that they are more accessible and more effective.
This is not a particularly novel idea. Certainly, in urban research, a field in which I now have some experience, people often talk about the importance of places of social interaction, community centres, squares, and public parks, the kinds of spaces that are small, and local, and inclusive, and allow us to search in a more narrow space of clustered social commitments. But I think that this point is worth making more explicitly, and more often, because it is not always obvious. We are, after all, connected in a web of social commitments that is dense and clustered and also thin and sparse, and that web often gets lost in the space between our skin, or is taken for granted, in the maelstrom of our daily lives, certainly my own. To allow the production of such hyper-local social commitments to be easy and convenient is a worthwhile commitment, I think, one that I would like to see realised more.
These are just half-baked thoughts — messy, hazy, half-stage directions, mind-maps of messy, vague ideas, with limited traction beyond bytes taking up space on a server, owing a great deal to an equally hazy scaffolding of other work. But I think they are also a reasonable description of my lived experiences, and those of the people I hold dear. It is worth taking a leap of faith, I think, and perhaps, with a bit of luck — a leap of luck — they might also be a reasonable description of the experiences of others.
A bunch of questions: can we make more of these connector nodes? How do we make them more effective, especially for communities that are not naturally well-connected, that are naturally under-clustered? Why don't more of these things arise spontaneously, on their own, at a greater pace? What are the limiting factors, and to what extent are these limiting factors particular to place or otherwise historically contingent? How does the way in which space is regulated affect the extent to which they are provisioned? And are there better ways of funding these spaces and institutions, these so-called connector nodes?
If you have any suggestions for things to read or projects to look at, or if you have any feedback, please let me know. You can reach me via various links on my website, or on Twitter, which I will be trying to use more. A special thanks to Rheza, Soham, and Chin for feedback.
This is a really interesting reflection on the reasons that friends might be under-clustered, written by Ben Southwood.
I am making the assumption that the more plural the shared context is, the greater the probability of forming a meaningful social connection is. In other words, I assume that I am more likely, holding everything else constant, to form a connection with somebody that went to the same university as me and lives in Helsinki than someone who merely lives in Helsinki. Intuitively, that seems right, but the extent to which that is true (and if it is true, the way in which that probability scales with the amount of shared context both parties can articulate) I am unsure of. Perhaps this is all a ridiculous reduction to begin with.
I have been enamoured by consensus finding tools, like pol.is, recently. See it in action for the London Borough of Newham here. I wonder if it, or something like it, might be an appropriate technology for finding, and subsequently interacting with, much narrower publics with far more intersection with myself, a self for which I am assuming, extremely naively, a useful reduction is the set of communities (subreddits being a pretty good approximation, at least compared to other accessible, wilfully-public data) I belong to.
This pre-print, “Behavioural changes during the pandemic worsened income diversity of urban encounters,” suggests that there has been a measurable decline — as much as 30% — in the diversity of physical encounters in large US cities due to the pandemic, perhaps pointing to the scale of the problem?
One of my favourite reads from the past few months has been this interview with Byung-Chul Han, in which he discusses a number of things. It got me thinking about whether sustained ritual in these spaces — both the terrace and the Facebook group — was a precondition for me reading them with such fondness.
This, of course, raises another question: how do we make sure that these things — these connector nodes, these items of projective storytelling that coarsely map to my experience — are not just another mechanism for inequality’s reproduction? This question begets discourse, to which I have limited exposure, on the fragmentation of resources — certainly requisite for institutions and spaces like those I am describing — in urban environments.
In hindsight, this reads quite a lot like Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a third place, which might be summarised as levelling, home-like social environments, neutral ground where people can gather and interact, fostering socialisation and community encounters. See his book, The Great Good Place, for more. Perhaps I am over-fitting from what little I can glean, but I have found it interesting, in recent months, to see renewed interest in the concept. See this project in San Fransisco, The Commons, which strives to function as one; it has raised 61,000 USD, at the time of writing, via crowdfunding.