Category Archives: Online Community Month

True or false: It takes a network

Last week I suggested that the top-down style of Senator Clinton’s primary campaign may have hindered her effectiveness in competing against Obama’s more networked approach. I wrote that this may be a sign of a new type of leadership — possibly one that can use burgeoning digital networks to lead us out of the dark, scary, physically isolating forest of modern digital life.

This forest is exemplified by the findings in the book Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. It is also placed into stark contrast by Senator Clinton’s ideal, as outlined in her book, It Takes a Village. The subtext in the African phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” is that no one or two people can raise a well-balanced and fully engaged citizen. At the very least, the task requires an extended family. Ideally there is a whole community at work.

The fear that a network cannot replace a village is — I think — a major source of anxiety about our newly wired world.

Of Televisions and Suburbs

Some would say Putnam (in Bowling Alone) didn’t chart the trend toward physical sprawl and fragmentation far enough. If he had, he might have found its earlier origins. He seems to place the apogee of American social capital somewhere between the administrations of FDR and Jimmy Carter. Before and after that, according to Putnam’s statistics, are the steep sides of a bell curve.

But looked at farther back, this bell might possibly be a blip.

If you look at its root causes, community disintegration might have actually started (silently, unmeasured), much closer to the time of Abe Lincoln. Consider the first game-changing technologies our young country was handed: The steam locomotive and the telegraph.

At the time, they were of huge significance. And these technologies were just the first gateway drugs for our current wanderlust.

After we gained the ability to settle across this country, our urge to strike out was further abetted by the automobile, and then the passenger jet. Nuclear families — and the neighborhoods supporting them — both suffered, as we were granted license by technology. Each successive device seemed to give us further permission to gather in smaller groups, and watch over narrower concerns.

So don’t be quick to heap all of the blame on what is, after all, merely the newest shady character in the police line-up. Networks and portable digital communication are the least familiar technologies, and therefore the most scary. But many others before them have been implicated in our decline. For example, before the web there was the “vast wasteland” of television.

Networks: A Cause Or Effect?

It may even be that networks can be a big part of “the way out of the forest.” Something has been telling me that the situation is more complicated than a steady march toward alienatation. I’m not the first to post these arguments. In his 2007 paper, David Koepsell suggests the following:

The web could well be, and in many ways still is, a highly alienating technology, encouraging a one-to-one relationship with a machine that even TV does not encourage. That is to say, television can be watched in groups, and often is, leading to a form of community interaction that the web typically does not.

However, the emergence of social networking through the web has brought about new methods for otherwise alienated and occasionally isolated people to overcome that isolation, to build new modes of affiliation, and form new communities in both virtual and physical spaces.

Koepsell suggests that no technology is embraced unless it meets some fundamental human needs. But do the latest technologies go far enough to begin restoring some of our society’s waning social capital?

My money is on Yes. But it is hard to see how this will happen, because we have lived with this type of networked world for so little time. Although it’s possible society has a terminal illness that no amount of networked leadership can reverse, it’s equally possible in my mind that our diminished social capital is a symptom of growing pains.

Could it be that, as a society, we’re just at that awkward age?

A Study of Semantics

Rereading this entry, I see the metaphors come hot and heavy. That’s not surprising. And it’s important to understand how desperate we all are for something to grab onto (yes, another metaphor!).

I’m reminded of something Al Gore said, when he was being interviewed on a chartered jet during his 2000 Presidential run. He was talking about his love of learning, and the courses he had recently taken on a number of important topics. When he was asked what he would likely pursue next, given everything a potential president should know, he said semantics.

Gore went on to say that technology and society are changing so fast, our language is straining to keep up. Here’s an excerpt, from the July 31, 2000, New Yorker article:

“Often the word ‘metaphor’ is simply a shorthand description for a very common, run-of-the-mill intellectual tool that all of us use.

“I became interested in more complex metaphors and their explanatory power when I was writing Earth in the Balance. In particular, in my effort to try to understand the origins of our modern world view, and its curious reliance on specialization and ever-narrower slices of the world around us into categories that are then themselves dissected, in an ongoing process of separation, into parts and subparts — a process that sometimes obliterates the connection to the whole and the appreciation for context and the deeper meanings that can’t really be found in the atomized parts of the whole — and in exploring the roots of that way of looking at the world, I found a lot of metaphors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that came directly from the scientific revolution into the world of politics and culture and sociology. And many of those metaphors are still with us.”

Such as?

“The clockwork universe. The idea that all the world is a machine of moving parts that will eventually be completely understood by means of looking carefully at all the different gears and cogs in the wheels and then …” He trailed off; he seemed to be searching for an exact phrase, and as he did this he turned his head in profile, squeezed his eyes shut, and made a pointing gesture with his hand. Then, when the words came, he turned his head back to me and smiled engagingly. “When I compared the absolute number of new scientific insights that came in the first flush of the scientific revolution to the incredible flood of scientific insights that now pour out of every single discipline, every single day, it’s astonishing. There’s no comparison. And yet the migration of those explanatory metaphors, from the narrow niches of science into the broader public dialogue about how we live our lives and how we understand the human experience and how we can better solve the social problems that become more pressing with each passing decade — that migration is, has been, reduced to the barest trickle.”

Gore seems to be saying here that we need fresh metaphors to properly share and debate developments in this new, digital landscape. We need to build a new linguistic toolkit — especially to deal with a world that is, on its surface, purely conceptual.

I agree.

If we can keep talking — and especially if we seek to understand — we’ll be on our way to a better world. I frankly don’t see an alternative. So as unworthy as I am to contribute, I’m glad that in a small way I can add to the dialog.

I’m certainly no expert in such matters. So I polled several who were as I prepared this set of posts. My favorite feedback came from youth and technology authority danah boyd, in a brief but much-appreciated email. To my concerns about our trajectory deeper into a “bowling alone world,” she provided some qualified reassurances (and a little research guidance).

What are your thoughts on this important matter? How are you taking action as an individual to create new and sustainable communities?

Quantifying community standards one Google search at a time

A Florida lawyer has found a novel use for search engine data in presenting a court case. Defending his client from obscenity charges, Lawrence Walters seeks to show that the “community standards” in Pensacola aren’t as lofty as some might expect. The New York Times lays out his defense tactic in “What’s Obscene? Google could have an answer“:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. [Walters] is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

I’m reminded of an old Tom T. Hall song about another southern community. In “Harper Valley PTA,” a single mother is accused by her school group of being unfit to raise her middle school daughter. She “wears tight skirts,” and has a drink or two in public — with men, no less! The song has our protagonist defending herself:

Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath, you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites

Of course the song ends with her accusers chastened and her “fitness” as a mother confirmed. Relatively speaking, of course, taking into account the prevailing Harper Valley community standards.

It will be interesting to see if a more high-tech version of this shaming defense wins the case. I have no affection for the industry that’s being defended, but if a jury of non-technologists can find the data presented reasonable and compelling, it will be a sign of just how quickly “John Q. Public” is coming around to viewing behavioral data as a yardstick of social attitudes.

True networked leadership builds communities that change the world

There is change afoot at Change.org. This is a blogging site / portal that I’ve watched with great interest since I first decided to research the health of Community in this digital era. Change.org has a bold name and a mission to match. That’s a lot of pressure. So a few weeks ago, the organization announced the hiring of a new associate editor, Joshua Levy.

Levy will lead — for lack of a better word — dozens of bloggers who can pool their knowledge and opinions to inspire and facilitate change. Says a Wired piece on the hire (the link is immediately above), “The project [asks] a large number of busy people to contribute small chunks of time to volunteer — just as Wikipedia does.” I found the announcement heartening because it implied a new type of leadership.

Change.org

That announcement coincided with Barack Obama achieving presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee status, a development that some say signals the death of top-down leadership in national political campaigns. Senator Obama’s campaign followed a horizontal, networked organization, while Senator Clinton’s used a more traditional hierarchical leadership style.

Both developments — as signs of a greater tend — give me hope.

Networked Leadership

Call me an optimist. When I was in my 20s, one of my favorite magazines was Utne Reader. Often called the Reader’s Digest of the alternative press, the Utne not only reported on positive social change but devoted precious resources to encouraging it. Significantly, it reported on the digital revolution, but also took a leadership position in exploring how networks can be used to revolutionize both print and activism. The publication’s prized, four-character (UTNE.com) domain name length is evidence of their early and enthusiastic arrival to the web.

The Utne also recognized the problems that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone (the title comes from his observation that nearly every form of civic organization has fallen in membership and participation — whereas more people are bowling than 40 years ago, fewer are bowling in leagues).

The magazine’s response was to encourage neighborhood salons, constructed around the then-burgeoning communitarian movement. Utne realized that our nation’s social capital was shrinking, and attempted a crude (and alas, unsustainable) mail-and-fax infrastructure to support these grassroots salons.

I’m an optimist, but experience has taught me to temper it with realism.

Take the experience of watching the Utne-driven salon movement wither and die. Of course, this was before everyone and his brother seems to have clamored online. Perhaps a “real” network will provide the instant connections (not hindered by the U.S. Postal Mail) that were lacking two decades ago. Evidence of this is the vitality of sites like Change.org, and other online social networks that strive to do more with its membership than exchange banalities and wage Mob Warfare.

Exploring The Social Power of Networks

Earlier this month The Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) held its annual conference. Speakers debated, described and otherwise explored an aspect of a community voice that the PDF’s manifesto asserts is growing. Here is an excerpt of that manifesto (emphasis is at the end is mine):

Democracy in America is changing.

A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising alongside the old system of capital-intensive broadcast politics.

Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader.

If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.

The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero.

Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation.

By some measures PDF is correct. New York Times editorial writer Nicholas Kristof, in his opinion piece Saving the World in Study Hall, provides some impressive anecdotal evidence that there is hope for us in the Millennial generation (those who were born in the 1980s and ’90s). And I do not doubt that there are individuals and small groups doing amazing things to make this world a better place.

But can this be “scaled?”

There’s a lot of work to be done, and my concern is online efforts are too little and too late.

Also, can this work be quantified, in the same, nearly irrefutable way that Bowling Alone quantified social capital’s depressing decline?

I’d welcome your thoughts.

In the meantime, I do think I have an answer for Bernard Sifry, father of PDF conference co-chair Micah Sifry. His parting question at the event: “How do we build leadership on the internet?” You find leaders who follow Lao Tzu’s advice in his famous Tao Te Ching:

The greatest leaders are never seen, their presence is never felt
Lesser rulers are loved and praised
Lesser still are hated, and obeyed through fear
And the least are despised and ignored

If you would lead people, trust them to do the right thing
When a leader accomplishes something using the tao
He steps back, moves on to something else
And lets the people praise themselves

June is Online Community Month

The headline says it all. On my blog, June is Online Community Month. It is so decreed. And mind you, by community, I don’t mean a particular type of web site, such as the myriad online “communities” described by forums, chat rooms and other real community metaphors. I mean real communities — that raise kids and pay taxes and send loved ones off to war — that are strengthened and propagated by online activity (maybe). In a phrase, I’m talking about computer mediated Community, with a capital C.

Friends vs. “Friends”

This may seem like splitting hairs, this online Communities versus communities business. But it is huge. It is as different a distinction as a friend is to a “friend” — one forged on Facebook (or some other social network) with the click of a mouse and the exchange of some level of web access.

My decision to devote a series of blog entries to the topic started in the Fall of last year. Ever the optimist, I had assumed that technology was the friend of community — as scary as it sometimes appears to parents of the young and keepers of the status quo. I was planning to research the topic to succinctly lay out of the facts to this view. Then I did some digging, and a lot of reading and discussing, and now I’m not so sure. Sometimes Chicken Little is right, and the sky really is falling.

I will be looking, in this U.S. election year, at political involvement online. And also the involvement of grassroots organizations. And even professional associations. I’ll be getting the help of experts where I can, and readers who are willing to provide their two cents.

Bowling Alone

I’ll also be helped by an extraordinary book that predates Web 2.0, but still has great value, from the perspective of recent history. It will also be used to fairly distribute blame, where blame is due, to technology other than modern, web-enabled networking. I’m talking about the book Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. The title comes from the phenomenon of an era that seems distant now, when we as a society bowled in leagues together, usually after work. The disintegration of this community-building ritual, along with others great and small, is exhaustively examined.

I’ll be sharing observations and statistics from the book throughout the month, as I look at this question: Has technology eroded our social fabric, or simply provided a new way to weave it?

I’ll start today with this factoid from the book — one that examines the communication technology that scared our parents the way the web does this generation’s. I’m talking about the technology that Newton Minow is 1961 called the “vast wasteland.” His famous speech used that term to describe the specific social decay that comes from a day of television:

When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

The One-fingered Salute

Bowling Alone talks about the technology of television a lot, asking if there is evidence that a society glued behind a set is more prone to ignoring the niceties that keep a community civil. Below is one interesting finding that the author used to show that it does.

It compares two self-reported activities: Participating in altruistic community events and flipping the bird to passing motorists. Here is his chart, showing the reverse correlation between contributing to what he calls “social capital” and contributing to road rage. It shows a similar direct correlation between this anti-social activity and highly valuing television. Click for a larger view, fully-legible view. (Ignore the reference to “churchgoing” in the titleby the way. It refers to additional data not shown here. It was included to help those who wish to find the entire dataset in the book’s index.)

Do people who are socially involved and people who highly value television have the same impolite driving habits?

Optimists would say that these trend lines may be coincidental. Every generation has complained about the gradual coarsening of its citizens. Web-savvy optimists, such as myself, would also argue that television can degrade “connectedness” while more modern technology aids it. Keep reading this month for more perspectives on this question, to see if I am one such optimist.