Why Twitter is so obsessed with these 1970s conversation pits

In lockdown, we're all hankering after connection, socialisation, space to breathe and most crucially, lush, retro homes that aren't mouldy rental hellholes.

by Nathan Ma
22 March 2021, 12:00pm

By Balthazar Korab via Wikipedia Commons

Lately, life has felt too familiar, too unoriginal. We walk the same routes that we’ve followed every day for the last year, then sit on our phones, watching the same debates buff out each day’s novelties like sandpaper on dinged wood until all that remains is a general feeling of discontent and anticipation. We see the same jokes every week: Nelly didn’t leave Kelly Rowland on read, Kelly Rowland texted Nelly using Microsoft Excel! Many immigrant kids are bilingual by two years old, actually, so fuck Princess Charlotte’s Spanish! And how exactly has a shrimp fried this rice? They don’t even have thumbs!

It’s hard to discern where these perennial discussions start, or if they’ll ever end, but it’s clear that they don’t exist in a vacuum, preserved by apps and algorithms. Conversation pits, for example, rank high among the stock discussion fodder. “We must revive the inspired 1970s concept,” one PhD student tweeted recently, as if a sunken living room were an extinct flightless bird. A blogger for online interiors community Houzz noted they were on the rise in 2013, as did design critic Kyle Chayka in 2017. On Apartment Therapy, no fewer than five different articles have called for a conversation pit revival since 2015. 

If we train our eye on discussions that are oft-repeated, we find cursory links to historical, societal, or cultural changes. Conversation pits, for example, cannot be divorced from a time when making a home meant more than wheeling in a few suitcases and a shipping crate of houseplants. Though they are associated with the 70s, the popularity of sunken living rooms dates back to the 50s, where long, low-to-the-ground ranch houses spread across the American suburbs during a period of post-war prosperity and baby boom. As architect, designer and ceramicist Ward Bennett said in 1975, conversation pits were “attempts to eliminate furniture”. Citing Thoreau, Whitman, and Gandhi as his muses, Bennet said, “I want to limit, to simplify.”

It’s clear that conversation pits were not without their faults. As observed in many of the blog posts and articles calling for their return, conversation pits are all fun and games until someone falls down, so homeowners began to fill them in as to limit liability and avoid late-night hospital visits. Still, it’s unclear if they ever truly went away. As living rooms and American houses expanded in the 90s, the conversation pit made sense of the excess space. At the turn of the century, Eileen Daspin reported, “Across the country, homeowners are signing up for the pit's tamer suburban sister, the sunken living room, which is serving to break up the vast expanse of oversize great rooms.” 

Perhaps, this is why conversation pits are always on our minds, even outside of the States — they remind us of what a home can be. Spacious, roomy, and somewhere to meet, not just to live. Still, there are some things that even furniture can’t replace. In the articles calling for the return of conversation pits, each notes that their popularity is in part due to a most human concern: The need for company. Is this lost, wayward waiting why everything feels the same? An unsettled, unsettling loneliness? Perhaps, but there’s another explanation. When asked what they’ve done to make themselves feel at home, the people I speak with cite their books, a stray desk or nightstand that they bought for themselves, or the prints they hang on their walls. They mention potted plants, which feels familiar, too. Back in 2016, I reported on the popularity of houseplants amongst millennials who felt increasingly powerless over their homes. 

Similar pieces were written soon thereafter for NYLON, The Guardian, Jezebel, The Telegraph, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Huffington Post, and in 2018, critic Marta Bausells performed a vivisection of these near-identical trend reports. She noted that as millennials, we are old enough to remember the world wide web before algorithmic interventions took root. She writes, “[The internet] didn’t feel like it does now: so tailored that you never have to encounter something you don’t already like”.

This is key to the internet’s endless sameness. Even in their novelty, conversation pits, like most trends endemic to the internet, are an outlet for desire, accelerated by algorithms that marshal posts by adjusting the velocity of its spread by the number of Likes and Retweets and Shares it collects. Practicality and logistics be damned: Conversation pits come up again and again even though living rooms in the UK have been slowly shrinking since the 70s, and for those living independently, they’re an endangered species as landlords squeeze tenants into living rooms to extract a few hundred pounds. They’re not being discovered, and it doesn’t seem like they went anywhere at all. 

On Twitter, some people believe that Andie’s boyfriend is the real bad guy in The Devil Wears Prada, while an adjacent audience believes the true villain is whichever Twitter user posts that exact observation once a month like clockwork. Both groups are rewarded by their peers, regardless. In No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood’s narrator describes these apps as portals in which microclimates emerge: “Previously, these communities were imposed on us, along with their mental weather. Now we chose them—or believed that we did”. As I glaze over another tweet about The Devil Wears Prada, or Princess Charlotte’s Spanish, or even conversation pits, I remember that it doesn’t matters if we think that something’s too familiar, unoriginal, foreign, or lacking novelty—all that matters is that we all keep playing along.