Virtual Book Tour: Urban Tribes

A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment

For this stop on the Virtual Book Tour for Ethan Watters’ new book, Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment, I asked Ethan a few questions that sprang to mind as I started skimming the book and reading reviews.

While I haven’t finished reading your book yet, I’ve read a handful of reviews and your recent interview on Christine’s site, and the first thought that came to mind was that tribes could have parallels with the blogging world.

Would you say that there’s a resemblance between a tight knit group of friends that meet weekly and a tight knit group of people blogging, linking to each other, and commenting on each others’ sites?

As I see it (and I’m just beginning to understand it) the blogging world is made dynamic by the second and third degree of connectivity. The blogs that are least interesting are those that are only for those people you directly know. As a generation we have become more and more interested in the strength of our “weak ties”) — witness friendster and tribe.net. I think the blogging world is more about our interest in the power of larger networks of people than it is a close knit community.

At MetaFilter, I’m constantly running into problems with the sheer size of an audience. It seems that things work great with a small group and then at some threshold group-related problems start to become the norm. I see that you discussed issues in your own weekly tribe, about how you have brought people in and kicked some people out. Have you found there is a magic size or limit to how big a useful tribe can grow to before becoming problematic?

Robin Dunbar has theorized the maximum size of groups. His belief is that human groups max out at 150. This is the maximum number of a group in which everybody can know everybody else at least by sight, if not by interaction. These are groups in which an individual can have some personal and coherent relationship with all the other individuals over a period of time. Put another way, he theorized that 150 was the maximum size at which a group might maintain adherence to its rules solely through the use of peer pressure. After 150 you have to begin imposing rules or laws and have a mechanism to punish or ostracize the person who transcends them. Of course, urban tribes seldom approach anywhere near that number. They tend to run best at around two dozen. These are more the size of what anthropologists called “night tribes.” These were often hunting parties — large enough to give the members a sense of safety but small enough to be mobile.
Switching gears back to the book’s subject matter, do you think the “marriage delay” has an obvious end? I mean, there’s a biological limit we’re running up against, isn’t there?

Women in my age group (I’m 39), who pioneered the marriage delay, are coming up against the end of their childbearing years. My guess is that their will be a rush to the alter in the next few years. The stories I’ve heard of these romances is that they go very fast. Engagements within a year of meeting the new love are common. This was the case with my marriage: one year to engagement, one year to marriage, one year to baby.

I think the average marrying age will max out at as it nears 30. It will swing back a bit but I doubt it will ever hover in the early 20s as it did for our parent’s generation.

Do you see the later onset of marriage as something growing across the board, or is it limited to the post-college crowd? Do you think average age of marriage in the US may soon be bimodal, with a lot of people getting married at traditional ages in the early 20s, while a similar large percentage do it in their early 30s? (two humped curve as opposed to a normal bell curve distribution).

There has been something of a delay across the board but the most significant delay is definitely among the college-educated crowd. I recently went back to my 20th high school reunion and discovered that several of my class mates had children attending high school. Everyone but me had children to show for their two decades. I was only engaged to be married.

I do think there will be a split in the next generation but it won’t fall just on a set of demographic criteria. There is a good portion of college graduates who are getting married quickly. There is another group that is looking ahead to their twenties and early thirties as a time of personal exploration. My generation of marriage delayers drifted into this period without any real understanding of its value or meaning. Now there is a group that is looking forward to it. Some of the people in this group have expressed exasperation at friends who have gotten married right out of college.

Thanks Ethan!