designing for strong ties

Kitestring is a journey from design research to social enterprise, exploring the intersection of friendship, community and play to find ways to strengthen our strong ties.

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Kitestring is a design research project that will eventually turn into a series of prototypes and eventually a social enterprise.

The music one looks back on

The music one looks back on

Stephen Dobyns


In early autumn, there’s a concerto

possible when there’s a guest in the house

and the guest is taking a shower and the host

is washing up from the night before.

With each turn of the tap in the kitchen,

the water temperature increases or drops

upstairs and the guest responds with little groans—

cold water for the low notes, hot water for high.

His hair is soapy, the tub slippery

and with his groaning he becomes the concerto’s

primary instrument. Then let’s say the night

was particularly frosty and now the radiators

are knocking, filling the house with warmth,

and the children are rushing around outside

in the leaves before breakfast, calling after

their Irish setter whose name is Cleveland.

And still asleep, the host’s wife is making

those little sighs one makes before waking,

as she turns and resettles and the bed creaks.

Standing at the sink, the host hums to himself

as he thinks of the eggs he’ll soon fry up,

while already there’s the crackle of bacon


from the stove and the smell of coffee. The mild groans

of the guest, the radiator’s percussion,

children’s high voices, the barking of a dog,

even the wife’s small sighs and resettlings

combine into this autumn concerto of which

not one of the musicians is aware as they drift

toward breakfast and then a leisurely walk

through the fields near the house – two friends

who haven’t seen each other for over a year,

Much later they will remember only a color,

a golden yellow, and the sound of their feet

scuffling the leaves. A day without rancor

or angry words, the sort of day that builds a life,

becoming a soft place to look back on,

and geese, geese flying south out of winter.

This feeling that there is an abundance of people. The hats.

Universities breed a certain tight, intense feeling of community. Marina Keegan writes beautifully of this in a piece for the Yale newspaper last year:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights… [read the full essay]


Rowan’s pots & Ronja’s super fertilizer

I had the pleasure to do an early informal interview with two of my friends Rowan and Ronja, and one of the things that came from the conversation was a metaphor of friendship as a plant:


If a friendship is a plant that you nurture, then you water it through regular contact. Just watering is not enough, though, because at some point it will reach the size of its pot and grow no longer, like work friends who you see frequently but grow no closer to. For the friendship to grow, you need to move it to a bigger pot–like inviting the work friend out for drinks or over for dinner.


You can do more than just water, though. Some experiences are like super-fertilizer. We just went on a road trip with two new friends, and the two people I knew at the end of the trip were completely different from how I knew them at the start.

Get your reading glasses on

One of the best things I read that clarified my interest in this area McPherson et al’s 2006 article “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” The entire article is a bit hefty, but the discussion and conclusion are certainly worth reading.

The punchline? “(1) the typical American discussion network has slightly less than one fewer confidant in it than it did in 1985, and (2) that in 2004 an adult, noninstitutionalized American is much more likely to be completely isolated from people with whom he or she could discuss important matters than in 1985.

Read on for the abstract and conclusion, or find the entire article online.

ABSTRACT Have the core discussion networks of Americans changed in the past two decades? In 1985, the General Social Survey (GSS) collected the first nationally representative data on the confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters. In the 2004 GSS the authors replicated those questions to assess social change in core network structures. Discussion networks are smaller in 2004 than in 1985. The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. The mean network size decreases by about a third (one confidant), from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. The modal respondent now reports having no confidant; the modal respondent in 1985 had three confidants. Both kin and non-kin confidants were lost in the past two decades, but the greater decrease of non-kin ties leads to more confidant networks centered on spouses and parents, with fewer contacts through voluntary associations and neighborhoods. Most people have densely interconnected confidants similar to them. Some changes reflect the changing demographics of the U.S. population. Educational heterogeneity of social ties has decreased, racial heterogeneity has increased. The data may overestimate the number of social isolates, but these shrinking networks reflect an important social change in America


If we assume that interpersonal environments are important (and most sociologists do), there appears to have been a large social change in the past two decades. The number of people who have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has declined dramatically, and the number of alternative discussion partners has shrunk. In his groundbreaking study of social networks, To Dwell among Friends, Claude Fischer (1982:125–27) labeled those who had only one or no discussion ties with whom to discuss personal matters as having marginal or inadequate counseling support. By those criteria, we have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated from counseling support to almost half of the population falling into that category.

The American population has lost discussion partners from both kin and outside the family. The largest losses, however, have come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood. The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family (spouses, partners, and parents). The education level at which one is more connected through core discussion ties to the larger community than to family members has shifted up into the graduate degrees, a level of education attained by only a tiny minority of the population. High school graduates and those with some college are now in a very family-dominated social environment of core confidants.

Some of the basic parameters of discussion network structure have moved very little in 19 years. Age and sex heterogeneity of ties has remained remarkably constant, and the decline in educational diversity seems directly linked to the increasing education level of the population.

Racial contact in these discussion networks has actually increased. Having a network dominated by family members still increases one’s contact with other ages and the other sex, while it makes the interpersonal environment more homogeneous with regard to race. The distinction between family and non-family ties has lost its importance only for education. Where families used to link the more highly educated younger generations to less educated elders, now kin and non-kin look similar in their educational composition.

If core discussion networks represent an important social resource, Americans are still stratified on education and race. Higher education people have larger networks of both family and non-family members, and their networks have more of the range that tends to bring new information and perspective into the interpersonal environment. Non-whites still have smaller networks than whites. Sex, on the other hand, seems to have lost some of its interpersonal stratifying power in the past 19 years. While women still have marginally larger networks than men and have more discussions about important matters with kin, they no longer show a significant deficit in the number of core contacts outside the family. As a result, women no longer have a significantly more kinshipfocused discussion network than men; nor are they significantly less likely than men to be social isolates.

Our final estimates, corrected for response problems and demographic shifts, are that (1) the typical American discussion network has slightly less than one fewer confidant in it than it did in 1985, and (2) that in 2004 an adult, noninstitutionalized American is much more likely to be completely isolated from people with whom he or she could discuss important matters than in 1985. Given the size of this social change, we remain cautious (perhaps even skeptical) of its size. The limited network data in 1987 indicate that the proportion of people who answer “no one” and who list relatively large numbers of confidants may be especially sensitive to context effects (see Online Supplement on ASR Web site). Given our analyses of the highest-quality nationally representative data available, however, our best current estimate is that the social environment of core confidants surrounding the typical American has become smaller, more densely interconnected, and more centered on the close ties of spouse/partner. The types of bridging ties that connect us to community and neighborhood have withered as confidant networks have closed in on a smaller core group.

Since the GSS has few measures other than demographic characteristics that were asked at both points in time, we are not well positioned to explore the reasons behind the social change. Still, it is useful to speculate (with help from other literature) to guide future research. Three explanations seem most likely. The first two possibilities concern how people interpret the question that we asked them, in view of historical and cultural change. What Americans considered important might well have shifted over the past two decades, perhaps as a result of major events (the attacks of 9/11 and the wars that followed). If people think of “important” more in terms of national and world-level events, more people might now think that they have nothing important to say. Since many people interpret the question as simply asking about their close confidants (rather than a particular discussion of important matters), it seems unlikely that such a shift in cultural meaning would have produced such a strong effect. It may, however, have contributed to the pattern.

The second possibility is that the use of the word “discuss” in the question was interpreted by respondents to exclude other forms of communication that are becoming dominant in our contacts with core confidants. Many more people now use cell phones and Internet (email, list serves, chat rooms, and instant messaging) to contact core network members (Wellman et al. 2006; Boase et al. 2006). If people exclude these types of communications when answering the question, it could reduce the number of alters reported.

The third possibility is the most substantively interesting. Shifts in work, geographic, and recreational patterns may have combined to create a larger demarcation between a smaller core of very close confidant ties and a much larger array of less interconnected, more geographi-cally dispersed, more unidimensional relationships. Families, especially families with children, may face a time bind that comes from longer commutes and more work time (Hochschild 1997). As more women have entered the labor force, families have added 10 to 29 hours per week to their hours working outside the home (Jacobs and Gerson 2001; Hout and Hanley 2002). The increase has been the most dramatic among middle-aged, better-educated, higher-income families—exactly the demographic group that fuels the voluntary association system (McPherson 1983; McPherson and Ranger-Moore 1991). The narrowing of the education gap suggests that this group—highly educated middle-class families—is where the declines in the number of core discussion ties have been sharpest. Such families can use new technologies to stay in touch with kin and friends—most notably cell phones and the Internet. While these technologies allow a network to spread out across geographic space and might even enhance contacts outside the home (e.g., arranging a meeting at a restaurant or bar), they seem, however, to lower the probability of having face-to-face visits with family, neighbors, or friends in one’s home (Boase et al. 2006; Gershuny 2003; 2and Erbring 2000; Nie, Hillygus, and Erbring 2002). 17 Wellman et al. (2006:10–13) note that Internet usage may even interfere with communication in the home, creating a post-familial family where family members spend time interacting with multiple computers in the home, rather than with each other. They suggest that computer technology may foster a wider, less-localized array of weak ties, rather than the strong, tightly interconnected confidant ties that we have measured here. This may not be all bad, of course, since we know that weak ties expose us to a wider range of information than strong, close ties. We also know, however, that strong ties offer a wider array of support, both in normal times (Wellman and Worley 1990) and in emergencies (Hurlburt et al. 2000). Only geographically local ties can offer some services and emotional support with ease (Wellman and Worley 1990).

Whatever the reason, it appears that Americans are connected far less tightly now than they were 19 years ago. Furthermore, ties with local neighborhoods and groups have suffered at a higher rate than others. Possibly, we will discover that it is not so much a matter of increasing isolation but a shift in the form and type of connection. Just as Sampson et al. (2005) discovered a shift in the type of civic participation, and the Pew Internet and American Society Report (Boase et al. 2006) showed a shift in modes of communication, the evidence that we present here may be an indicator of a shift in structures of affiliation.


Kitestring is exploring the intersection of community, play, and friendship to find ways to strengthen our strong ties and our inner circles.