The Virtual Community

by Scott London

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 often cited as a primary culprit. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam puts it, these technologies are increasingly “privatizing our leisure time” and “undermining our connections with one another and with our communities.”

In his essay “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” Putnam drew a direct parallel between the arrival of television and the decline of what he called “social capital” — the social networks, trust, and norms of reciprocity that are the essence of healthy communities. As he pointed out, a “massive change in the way Americans spend their days and nights occurred precisely during the years of generational civic disengagement.” It follows that technologies like computers and television which “cocoon” us from our neighbors and communities exacerbate the loss of social capital.

But with the rise of so-called “virtual communities” on the Internet, there are some who believe that electronic technologies can actually be used to strengthen the bonds of community and reverse America’s declining social capital. They 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.

I explore this idea in “Civic Networks: Building Community on the Net,” an essay published in the new book Composing Knowledge, edited by Rolf Norgaard (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press). The piece looks at the role of online networks in building and strengthening community and tries to sort through some of the rhetoric — much of it overblown — about so-called virtual communities. My sense is that these networks can play a role in strengthening communities if they are used to augment social networks that are already in place. In addition to their obvious benefits as text-based information systems, networks can serve as public spaces for informal citizen-to-citizen interaction, they can support rational dialogue and, in some cases, deliberation, and they can promote the social connectedness, trust, and cooperation that constitute social capital.