Building Community on the Net

5342 Words22 Pages
Building Community on the Net All sorts of reasons have been advanced in recent years to explain the decline of community in America, from the way we design our neighborhoods to the increased mobility of the average American to such demographic shifts as the movement of women into the labor force. But the onslaught of television and other electronic technologies is usually cited as the main culprit. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam observes, these technologies are increasingly "privatizing our leisure time" and "undermining our connections with one another and with our communities."[1] In his essay "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," Putnam draws a direct parallel between the arrival of television and the decline of what he calls "social capital" -- the social networks, trust, and norms of reciprocity that are the essence of healthy communities. As he points out, a "massive change in the way Americans spend their days and nights occurred precisely during the years of generational civic disengagement."[2] It follows that computers, VCRs, virtual reality and other technologies that, like television, "cocoon" us from our neighbors and communities exacerbate the loss of social capital. With the advent of computer networks and "virtual communities," however, some feel that electronic technologies can actually be used to strengthen the bonds of community and reverse America's declining social capital. Advocates stress that electronic networks can help citizens build organizations, provide local information, and develop bonds of civic life and conviviality. While the claims are no doubt overstated in many cases, as they always are when new technologies are involved, there is growing evidence that this may be the case, particularly in local community networks. The social and political ramifications of electronic networking has become a favorite topic of speculation in recent years. Cover stories, conferences, books, Web sites, and radio and television programs devoted to the subject have grown exponentially. In looking over the burgeoning literature on the political uses of the Net, I find that most of it falls into three general categories: 1) questions of democratic culture and practice, such as the pros and cons of direct democracy, issues of privacy and social control, and the changing nature of public opinion; 2) how on-line petitioning, electronic voting, information campaigning and other forms of "netactivism" can promote politics more narrowly defined; and 3) the implications of networking technologies for communities. This paper leaves aside the first two categories[3] and focuses specifically on the third: whether computer networks can be used to strengthen and enhance the bonds of community.

More about Building Community on the Net

Open Document