There's an App for That

Delta Winds cover 2016Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


There's an App for That: How Gordon Allport's Concepts of In-Groups Apply to Facebook Friendships

Nicholas Chellsen

What was life like before the Internet? Members of Generation X, born between 1960 and the early 1980s, might laugh at the ignorance that that question implies. However, for young men in their early-twenties, this question can become a little more obscure. While they may remember some of their early childhood experiences before the turn of the century, much of what is familiar to them revolves around the sixteen-gigabyte brick in their back pockets. This device gives them instant access to the Internet and all its little wonders. Looking for some new place to have lunch? There's an app for that! Need to check the score of the game? There's an app for that! Want to check in with friends? There's an app for that: Facebook. With Facebook young men can see what their friends are up to, connect with family members at home or abroad, show support for the favorite team, and share their opinions on pressing political issues. I don't know if the 20th Century sociologist Gordon Allport could have predicted this recent phenomenon. Regardless, his 1954 essay, "The Formation of In-Groups," is compellingly relevant to the emergence of Facebook. Allport's concepts of in-groups directly apply as we examine the Facebook in-groups of young men, these being families, favorite sports teams, as well as political parties. As a young man in my early-twenties who frequently uses Facebook, I believe Facebook, while it has the ability to connect us with those of different backgrounds and beliefs, inadvertently reinforces our already established in-groups.

One of the many established in-groups is family. Concerning family as an in-group, Allport writes, "What is familiar tends to become a value. We come to like a style of cooking, the customs, the people, we have grown up with" (46). He continues, "One's family ordinarily constitutes the smallest and the firmest of one's in-groups." What Allport is essentially saying is that individuals will place value on what they are familiar with. Since one's family and family history is a foundational part of identity, one's family is one of the strongest in-groups. Facebook also assists in affirming this in-group. A Facebook user can list relatives on the profile page (e.g. parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins). The user will then also be listed on his family member's page based on this relationship. This can create an opportunity for an individual to connect with the relatives of his friends, or in some cases, soon-to-be relatives. I personally experienced this when my uncle from New York got engaged. Following the engagement, my uncle's soon-to-be husband wished to be linked to many of his future spouse's family members through Facebook. Though I had previously never met my uncle's soon-to-be husband, I accepted his "friend" request. However, if I had not seen the family connection, I would have simply clicked "ignore."

Another in-group membership involves fans of particular sports teams. Though Allport admits that it can be challenging to distinctly define an in-group, he writes that there has to be some commonality that brings individuals in a group together (48). He writes, "Perhaps the best that can be done is to say that members of an in-group all use the term 'we' with the same essential significance" (48). Allport is essentially saying that an in-group can be defined simply as a group of people who like the same thing. Being a fan of a particular sports team is a perfect example of this. Even though the fans are not members of the actual team, they will frequently refer to themselves and their favorite team as "we" (e.g. "We lost today" or "We are going to the World Series"). Facebook gives users a platform to show their team pride. On game days, young men will change their profile or cover photos to logos of their favorite sports teams or the numbers of their favorite players. Some will even post "live updates" of the game on their pages. While this can create camaraderie among sports fans, other users who are not interested in sports may find this display of fervent team spirit to be alienating, if not simply annoying. This may result in these young men being blocked or "unfriended" by their Facebook friends.

The final established in-group is political. This could include a particular candidate, party, or policy. While Allport does not explicitly name political parties in his essay, he does write that some in-groups are achieved rather than ascribed (49). He writes, "Some memberships have to be fought for. But many are conferred automatically by birth and by family tradition" (49). What Allport is saying here is that some of our in-group memberships, such as family, are automatically attributed to us, while others have to be earned. Young men will use Facebook as a way to "prove" their political loyalty towards a certain candidate or issue. Additionally, in order to appeal to younger voters, many politicians have created Facebook profiles and pages for their campaigns or for the policies that they support. This gives the young men who want to prove their support or loyalty on social media an opportunity to display their in-group loyalty by "liking" these pages, sharing their content, and posting their opinions on the issues.

However, regarding politics as an in-group, it should also be noted that Allport writes that an in-group always implies that there is an out-group (56). Using a metaphor of school sports teams, he writes, "School spirit is never so strong as when the time for an athletic contest with the traditional 'enemy' approaches" (57). Because "belonging is a highly personal matter" (52), if a young man supports a candidate, party, or policy, and one of his Facebook friends does not, then this young man may choose to display hostility towards that person. Young men will engage in lengthy arguments or name-calling, block their friends' posts, or even "unfriend" individuals altogether. While some of these young men may feel that they did the right thing, I think Allport would disagree. He writes, "The psychological emphasis must be placed primarily on the desire for security, not on hostility itself" (57). This means that the primary purpose of an in-group is for its members to feel a sense of belonging, not to attack or alienate members of alternative out-groups. Unfortunately, the latter is more frequently seen on Facebook.

In conclusion, while Facebook may have changed the way young men choose to connect with their in-groups, it clearly has not changed the nature of these in-groups. Alienation and hostility are attitudes of in-groups that are now being communicated digitally. Concluding his essay, Allport writes, "Attitudes partial to the in-group do not necessarily require that attitudes toward other groups be antagonistic" (61). He suggests that one's loyalty to a smaller in-group can be strengthened, not threatened, by loyalty toward the larger in-group of humankind (58-59). Allport writes that this is a "hopeful possibility" (61). Can someone human create an app for that?

Work Cited

Allport, Gordon. "The Formation of In-Groups." English 1D Handbook: Advanced Composition and Critical Thinking. 2014, Ed. Anna Villegas. PDF. Google Drive. 17 Aug. 2015.