Are We More Social Today?

Studies of people in public spaces show that we may be more social today, despite hypotheses about technology pulling us apart. The Street Life Project in the 1960s and 70s photographed and filmed people in places, such as Bryant Park in New York City, to track how they sat, stood, and interacted with others. At the time, the goal was part of a city planning effort to improve public spaces.

Between 2008 and 2010, a University of Pennsylvania research team continued this work by filming people outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They coded 38 hours of footage based on sex, group size, loitering behavior, and phone use. The team found only 3% of adults on cell phones. As lead researcher Keith Hampton says, 

"In the busiest public spaces, where there are a lot of groups, like this kind of public space, it's like 3 percent. Three percent. I can't even see someone on a cellphone right now, but yet how many times have you seen a story that says,'People on cellphones in public spaces is rude, it's creating all sorts of problems, people are walking into traffic.' I mean, we really have a strong sense that it's everywhere."

Hampton's research also found that people weren't talking to avoid contact with people but rather to kill time waiting for someone; the people on phones were alone. Twenty-four percent of people were alone on the steps, compared to 32% in the 1970s studies of the same spot. These findings support Hampton's other work about whether technology has made us more alone.

A New York Times Magazine piece provides a still of the work:

Museum - public spaces

Discussion Starters:

  • What's your view of these findings? In what ways do they surprise you-or not?
  • What are some possible limitations of the study in drawing conclusions about how technology has affected us?
  • The research also found that women are out in public today more than they were 40 years ago. What could explain this shift?
  • In what ways has technology made you either more social or more alone?