WATCHING a younger generation plugged into headphones and scrolling through social media, their faces lit by a cold blue light, you can see why some fear the end of old-fashioned friendliness. The rise of Facebook and other platforms connecting people to their peer group has led to fears of social isolation among those whose interactions are increasingly virtual rather than real. Not only are their contacts at arm’s length, but the posturing and one-upmanship of their online buddies can lead to feelings of inadequacy or insecurity as the viewer’s own life fails, in their estimation, to match the glamour, popularity or success of their far-flung network.

One historian, however, has challenged this gloomy view. Professor Jon Lawrence, of the University of Exeter, is the author of the recently published history, Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-War England. Comparing how people interacted in the past with how we behave today, he believes Facebook et al offer great opportunities for engaging meaningfully with others. Thanks to this technology, individuals can make and sustain relationships with those they choose to befriend, rather than being obliged to fit into the community in which they happen to live or indeed work.

While Lawrence is optimistic about the potential of social media, he also dispels the myth of a “golden age” of tight-knit communities our grandparents were familiar with. After analysing hundreds of post-war interviews with those living in working-class districts, middle-class towns, inner cities and suburbs, he believes that rather than a positive and nurturing environment, these were often a source of deep tension and conflict. His conclusion is that our reverence for the bonds of those living cheek by jowl in bygone years, when compared with our own individualistic and self-centred age, is misplaced. As he writes, “Community hasn’t died, but it has changed.”

Perhaps I’m just cynical, but whenever I hear the phrase “tight-knit community”, I picture not a happy, supportive parish eager to take soup to the ill or babysit at short notice, but a simmering cauldron of gossip and backbiting. Such a seemingly cosy set-up is a staple ingredient for writers of soporific crime fiction – reaching its apotheosis in Midsomer Murders – where the chocolate box rural idyll, or the charming Hovis street scene, is revealed as a snakepit. Everyone, it seems, including the postman nursed a grievance against the poor soul felled by a scone laced with weedkiller. How else to explain the advent of soap operas like Coronation Street and, ahem, Neighbours, if proximity to others created universal joy?

Only those who have never shared a roof with strangers, be it a tenement flat or rented room, are blinkered enough to be nostalgic about what it’s like to live within constant earshot of someone’s Benson and Hedges death rattle. Molly Weir helped immortalise the idea of the essentially kind-hearted collegiate spirit of living like sardines with her amusing memoirs of life in a Springburn tenement. One scene in particular sticks with me, as she describes the way in which women doing their washing in the basement wash-house at night-time would soap and scrub by flickering candlelight, urged on by onlookers offering advice.

But you’ll find a different portrait altogether in fellow Glaswegian Agnes Muirhead’s recollections from around 1935. After someone next door lit a coal fire on wash day, meaning her mother’s laundry had to be taken in and done again, she took action. When the culprit’s own washing was hung out to dry, Muirhead carried out the ash bins and accidentally knocked into the clean clothes and sheets: “So that stopped that. We put an end tae that.”

Even the best of neighbours can create friction if their fondness for heavy metal is indulged loudly at an antisocial hour, or their teenagers hold a party when they are away. But you don’t need to be living through a thin wall for arguments to arise. Even before the arrival of Leylandii there have been stories of garden battles over hedges and trees, sometimes spilling into violence and occasionally – back to Midsomer Murders – homicidal rage.

Yet despite its many pitfalls, the idea of living in companionable harmony with those in the same street or hamlet is appealing, and in some places still quite common. This is in part probably because cars allow much greater mobility, and nobody need feel trapped. And while social media makes it possible not to lose touch with distant friends and relatives, you can’t help feeling that even if this offers a sense of companionship – as in the old days did a long catch-up phone call – it is no substitute for meeting in person. By the time you’ve got a job and perhaps a family of your own, how many true friends, as opposed to online friends, can you really keep close to?

The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar thinks that humans are hardwired to enjoy a meaningful relationship with no more than 150 others. That was the average size of the traditional village, he says, and is what our brain has evolved to cope with and process comfortably. So those with thousands of online friends or followers might feel proud of their popularity, but to some extent you could call this an illusion. Dunbar is also certain that face-to-face encounters far outstrip online contact as a demonstration of friendship, connection and reassurance that actively makes us feel liked and happy.

None of this is particularly surprising. We all instinctively know our limits, and have invisible inner and outer circles of friends and acquaintances. Nor should handwringing about the decline of old-style neighbourliness among those of us who would still rather post a card than an online message come as any surprise. Upcoming generations have always found new ways to communicate and connect. None of them is perfect, sadly, and as in every realm of human interaction, all bring problems as well as pleasures. What is clear, though, is that whether it’s in a tenement close, or a Hebridean clachan, whether you live in a gated community or on a picturesque village green, like it or not, we all depend on other people, and have an obligation to them. This applies to everyone, whether they are within shooting distance, or connected only by wifi.

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