We can't keep meeting this way

Loneliness is the modern problem among young men in the US, with suicide being a top killer in this demographic. Feeling isolated is common among the still living. Over and over, I've heard people complain about and wondered myself: after school, how do we even meet people any more? And I've observed the inadequate modern answer just as many times: in commercial spaces.

On the market at the market

It's no surprise that, as we exercise our identity through purchasing, it's also our solution for community. We go to a bar to meet a date, search for kindred spirits at a comic shop or rock climbing gym, and find ambient company at a cafe. It's hard to think of a non-commercial space which brings people together, aside from some notable exceptions: the church, the public library or community centre, and the park. These public places are however much less attended than before — certainly we don't think of them first if we want to meet someone new. Instead, there are endless commercial spaces centred on identity and interests. From studios offering pottery classes to hobbyist stores, are we doomed to buy as a means to befriend?

The social web has also translated this pattern online. As individually run forums have disappeared, corporate webspaces have replaced them. The equivalent of the comic shop, once an internet forum hosted by a diehard fan, is now a single subsection of many on Reddit. Online community-building now filters through an algorithm built to maximise advertising revenue. Dating is the same story. I often think about Tinder's impact on society, through how it shapes the future generation. We would never let the government choose who should have children together. Is leaving this decision up to a few matchmaking companies any better?

The cost of commercial community

Last year, I discovered a local indie pen shop which organises a pen pal match each winter. Charmed by the whimsy, I signed up immediately. If a stationery store can keep alive the love of writing snail mail among its customers around the world, what's so bad about socialisation centred on a commercial entity? Everyone knows a happy couple who met on Tinder or at a yoga studio.

The problem is when it is our only choice, because commercial spaces are fundamentally not good places for building relationships. They are inaccessible for anyone without the means. It's also not their primary purpose. Connections must be nourished with repeated authentic interaction, while generally people do not go to a store to make friends. If you do, then, you will not encounter people in the open mindset to meet or the same people every time. There's simply a mismatch between what grows a community, and the environment of a business. It's hard to play tennis at the pool.

I have also observed that the friend groups of many young adults, including mine, are not very diverse. We tend to have friends with the same age, socioeconomic standing, and educational level. Relationships from commercial venues, which can only exist if two people go to the same hobby store, continues this pattern. Even more directly, online dating platforms let users easily filter potential matches by any number of traits. Given these tools, nearly all would choose to look for someone similar to themselves, without considering what they are losing. It's inevitable that we more easily relate to similar people, but new perspectives are even more valuable. A informal mentorship between a younger and older person is an opportunity to exchange modern ideas and the wisdom learned from a lifetime. Having a friend with different political views humanises the other side. Trust built from a friendship can support good faith discussion, which helps us step into the lives of those different from us.

Both the quantity and quality of communities suffer when we have no way of developing them but from commercial spaces. Though I don't want to return to the days when the church was a key neighbourhood hub, it's time to revisit the library, community centre, and public park. They can't solve the loneliness among young adults on their own, but we sorely need spaces intentionally dedicated to cultivating community. And it's definitely time to revive the book club.

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