Americans no longer participate in local community organizations, or become members of assorted clubs with as much fervor as they used to. The political involvement of Americans has also decreased significantly in the last fort years. In the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam uses facts like these, buttressed with data from experimental studies to argue that American community is on the decline. To him, this means that Americans are not as involved with each other and thus do not maintain as much social capital.
For Putnam, this is a problem because social capital has many important benefits, including improving people's lives both biologically and psychologically. Having close and frequent connections with other members of a community makes an individual healthier. It also does much to promote behaviors which are beneficial for the whole society and encourage a more socially oriented populace.
One thing that Putnam does not seem able to determine is the effect of the Internet on American social capital. In Networks in the Global Village, we read arguments that the Internet provides strong communities which are beneficial in many ways. These communities can provide intimate relationships and support of all kinds. Moreover, Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia argue that these online communities do not take away from real communities. A major part of their argument is that Net-based interactions are often supplemental to other forms of interaction and that involvement in Net-based communication does not rule out participation in other communities.
The essay in Networks and the Global Village makes many references to the angst people felt about the depersonalized communication of the telephone when it was introduced and suggests that such feelings were unfounded. However, as far as I can tell, they give no proof of this fact. When we read from the book Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold, we saw arguments that cellular telephone technology has allowed people to become more connected to each other, and thus has in fact increased community be making connections easier to maintain. I think we are seeing the many ways in which our varied communication networks allow the links in our social network to be activated. Face-to-face communication is difficult to maintain, and as such, we are continually becoming more reliant on other, easier forms of communication to maintain these relationships.
How does this synthesize with Putnam's view that American community is on the decline? Certainly, he may be underestimating the participation of people in Internet communities, as he admits himself that comprehensive studies on the issue have not been done. If Internet communities are on equal footing with neighborhood communities and local communities, then maybe community participation is not decreasing, it is just shifting. The Internet is growing at an exponential rate, so it makes sense to believe that Internet communities are increasing rapidly as well.
In fact, decreasing long distance telephone rates and the widespread use of cellular telephones may also account for this. People may have transitioned to maintaining social capital through simple, cheap telephone calls. In fact, I am currently working for a small company in New York. I held a three person conference call today on my cell phone, sent a few e-mails back and forth with my coworkers and signed on to an online collaboration system called twiki which will allow us to easily coordinate our work together. This sounds great. Is it possible for this ease of communication to be a bad thing?
I argue that it is, as long as we believe that online and telephone based interactions are equally as valuable as face-to-face interactions. I feel that Internet communities are significantly different from local ones. My personal experiences online have shown that online communities have often been tainted by the willingness of other members to be more caustic and extreme than they might in real life. In fact, I did a small study on this issue for my social psychology class. The other members of my group and I distributed questionnaires on volatile issues to Stanford students across campus and the students were asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements made on the questionnaire. Half of the students were asked to write the answers on a sheet of paper that was handed to the questioner, and the other half were asked to fill out the questionnaire online. We found that people expressed more extreme views when the questionnaire was filled out online. Certainly this study is not perfect but it seems to support the idea that we behave differently online than face-to-face.
Online interactions often provide anonymity and an ability to present ourselves differently than we might ordinarily. The predominance of written communication gives us a way to edit our utterances until they fit the image we want to project, something which is not quite so simple in a real time environment. Since our words are our only connection to others, it is much easier to be duplicitous or even self-deluding.
There is a bigger concern here though. Putnam argues that community is good because it has many positive effects. He says that involvement in community actually increases a person's biological and mental health. Biologists and psychologists have also shown that physical contact provides biological benefits, as well, and without it people become depressed and ill. Laughter is, of course, the best medicine, and though this may not be medically proven, it rings true for me. I question whether typing "LOL" on a keyboard has the same benefits. Malcolm Gladwell argued in The Tipping Point that much of communication is done non-verbally and emotions can easily be transferred from person to person without the utterance of a single word. If community loses its physical aspect, I believe that many of the subtle benefits that go along with physical face-to-face contact will also be lost.
Community also encourages socially beneficial behavior. Internet communities can often be characterized by the ease of entry and exit to these communities, which is certainly a benefit when we want to be able to join. I think that the normative effects of community are part of what encourages the social behavior described by Putnam. If one behaves badly, or is not supportive of the community, one easily finds oneself the object of criticism from the other members of the community. In a local community this can be devastating because there is no way to escape the members of such a community. Online, it is easy to suddenly disappear from the community and find a new one. In fact, is often even possible to just change the handle by which you are known in the community and adopt a new identity for the community, thereby absolving yourself of all your old sins.
In our course, we have found out that American community is collapsing and the Internet community is growing. We have speculated that our social networks are becoming more diffuse, spreading our connections across the nation and the globe. As we become less tied down geographically, we are starting to rely more heavily on non-physical means of communication to activate our connections. I worry that in such a system, the value of each connection is lessened and that the benefits we gain from each connection decreases. I think that in this world of the Internet, e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones, pagers, faxes, and the World Wide Web, we should keep in mind the importance of face-to-face communication. While we maximize the abilities and benefits of these new communication technologies, we need to remember to engage in local communities and physical interaction for the subtle and important benefits which they provide.