Our longstanding American reputation for friendliness has taken a hit recently, and not just because of the pugnacious politics that dominate the national news. In our daily transactions with fellow citizens, we have become a less sociable people.
For example, according to data from the authoritative Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) survey, Americans no longer communicate to any meaningful extent with the folks next door. Only one-third of Americans now speak with neighbors once a week or more; the remaining two-thirds, rarely or never. The largest decline has come among the youngest adults surveyed: from 1995 and 2012, the percentage of 25-34 year-olds who speak with neighbors on a weekly basis shrank from 40 percent to 28 percent, a trend that does not bode well for the future. These figures are consistent with other research showing that social networks in the United States have shrunk so much since the late 1980s that, by the early years of the twenty-first century, the number of people who say there is no one with whom they discuss important matters has nearly tripled. Related to this trend, it has been widely noted that the trust that people place in each other and in their social institutions has declined, with deleterious societal effects.
Some may say: Not to worry, digital networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn are allowing people to connect with each other in new ways, and are fine substitutes for the face-to-face interactions that we enjoyed in our pre-twenty-first century social lives. And it’s true that social media provide unique personal and social benefits when used with aplomb. But our human need for real-life, in-person communications has not gone away. As MIT media scientist Sherry Turkle has shown in a large multi-year study described in her book Alone Together, social media use that substitutes for face-to-face interactions often leads to a “new solitude,” with consequent impoverishment of people’s emotional lives.
There are reasons both individual and societal to rebuild our friendship networks among our fellow citizens. For one thing, regular in-person conversations with attentive others can allay feelings of social isolation, a serious problem for those who may have lost contact with friends and relatives. According to research cited by the Stanford Center on Longevity, “socially isolated individuals face health risks comparable to those of smokers.” For another thing, broader civic aspirations, ranging from local community improvement to the rebuilding of solidarity and trust nationwide, require sustained interchanges among people who work together towards a purpose. It’s true that social media campaigns have sometimes been successful at achieving valuable civic purposes such as raising funds for worthwhile philanthropic causes. But the vast majority of such efforts go no further than occasional social media posts from people who rarely see each other. It is hard to imagine a stable society without core citizen groups who actually meet and get to know one another well enough to develop mutual respect and confidence.
Does the decline in neighborly conversations reflect a more general loss in opportunities for fellow citizens to engage with one another in conversations about common concerns? Such a loss would forewarn serious costs to hopes for personal and societal advancement. When citizens become accustomed to only keeping their own counsel rather than sharing ideas with others who might have something to add—like a bit of advice, an informative story, or a contrary opinion—they become confined to their own limited experience and cannot benefit from the wisdom of others in solving problems.
The eighteenth century in America saw the rise of an ambitious young man who, at the start of his career, invented a congenial way to exchange wisdom and support with fellow citizens as they made their way in a changing society. The young man was Benjamin Franklin, later destined to become the inventor of much else, including new technological devices, creative scientific insights, and the foundations of an improbable democratic republic. At age 21, young Ben devised a way to foster his early ambitions: a “mutual improvement society” that he called the “Junto” (pronounced June-Toe), derived from the Latin for “to join.”
Franklin’s group of twelve Philadelphians met Friday nights at a local tavern they called the “merchant’s Every-night club,” where they discussed business, morality, politics, philosophy, and whatever else interested them. The membership was vocationally diverse, with businessmen, a clerk, a mathematician, a shoemaker, a surveyor, and a mechanic. Members of the Junto did a great deal of what we today would call “networking,” promoting each other’s advancement and keeping an eye out for useful connections with others beyond their group. The underlying agenda was to help one another become successful in their careers and good citizens. They discussed the role that virtues—such as prudence, diligence, and humility—play in building a successful life. Later in life, Franklin reflected on the role the Junto played in society: “the club continued (for forty years), and was the best school of philosophy, morality, and politics as then existed in the province.” The Junto also took on civic and charitable causes, such as establishing a public library by asking members to donate some of their own books.
Might establishing this kind of mutual improvement society be possible today? In our world of solitary TV and digital device gazing, distrust across cultural and political groups, and increasing social isolation, such a community seems more needed now than ever. This is one reason why the folks at New York City’s 92nd Street Y have taken it upon themselves to recreate a community much like Franklin’s Junto. 92Y is a community center with a global platform, and it is dedicated to a number of civic ventures that are meant to enrich society and the lives of its members. One of them, for example, was Giving Tuesday, which was one of the most productive charitable initiatives of recent times. Now 92Y, in collaboration with the Citizen University in Seattle and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has launched a twenty-first century version of Franklin’s Junto, called Ben Franklin Circles. Its website went live in January around Ben’s birthday and its motto is: “Transform your life, transform your world.”
The driving idea behind its “transform your world” tagline is the idea of new power, which was presented in a groundbreaking 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review by tech entrepreneur Jeremy Heimans and 92Y executive director Henry Timms. “New power” is a grassroots, bottom-up approach to social change. It relies on peer collaborations carried out by ordinary citizens rather than hierarchically organized assignments by command structures. In economics, for example, peer-to-peer lending is an example of new power, while traditional banking represents a case of old power; in journalism, it might be blogging as opposed to The New York Times. Heimans and Timms write: “Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. . . . It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. . . . New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven.” The Ben Franklin Circles capture the contagious energy of new power. They take advantage of citizens’ desires to control their own destinies. This was a powerful incentive in Ben Franklin’s pioneering time. For other reasons, it may be an equally powerful incentive today.
Since its mid-January launch, almost two dozen Ben Franklin Circles have sprouted up in states like New York, North Carolina, Washington, Utah, and Colorado, with circles in California and elsewhere currently in formation. Acknowledging the realities of busy twenty-first century working lives, today’s Circles meet monthly rather than weekly. Discussions focus on people’s lives—their aspirations and concerns—and how to bolster them through personal improvement and mutual support. Also central are concerns about how members can contribute to their communities and the civic society. The ages, vocations, and ideological persuasions in the Circles are diverse, with the essential caveat that debates be civil and respectful. This reflects the spirit of Ben, who wrote that his Junto was “to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” The rules of engagement for Ben Franklin Circles, as detailed on the Circles’ website, guide participants to deep conversations that lead to informed personal and civic choices, new friendships, and sustained relations among members.
Every societal epoch presents its own opportunities and challenges. Ben Franklin lived in a land of plenty ruled by a distant colonial power that would eventually be confronted in a bloody war to secure the democratic future of a new nation. Today, many of our trials tend to be of the mind and the spirit. Cynicism, anger, dejection, and social isolation are some of the present-day dangers that must be faced and defeated in our increasingly fragile democracy. Many citizens look in vain to the appearance of an inspired leader who will show us a better way. But there is another approach, more dispersed and more in tune with contemporary twenty-first century sensibilities. It is an approach that hinges on citizens taking matters into their own hands and discussing among themselves the best ways to lead productive, fulfilling, and purposeful lives and to improve society. Ben Franklin Circles adapt a model that worked long ago to a different world with new sorts of challenges—but they address the same needs for personal growth, civic virtue, and social support that human beings have shared from the eighteenth century on to today.
Editor's note: To learn more about Ben Franklin Circles, and for information on how to start or join one, please click here.