The Effects Of The Internet On American Community

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This stolen from Koba-san

Well, the jury is still out on the effects of the Internet on American community.  I thought the following clips from Putnam frame well the challenges that face those who wish to enhance social capital through the use of computer technology.

The absence of any correlation between Internet usage and civic engagement could mean that the Internet attracts reclusive nerds and energizes them, but it could also mean that the Net disproportionately attracts civic dynamos and sedates them.  In any event, it is much too early to assess the long-run social effects of the Internet empirically… neither the apocalyptic “gloom and doom” prognosticators nor utopian “brave new virtual community” advocates are probably on target. \  \ -- Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, p. 171

Some of the allegedly greater democracy in cyberspace is based more on hope and hype than on careful research.  The political culture of the Internet, at least in its early stages, is astringently libertarian, and in some respects cyberspace represents a Hobbesian state of nature, not a Lockean one.  As Peter Kollock and Marc Smith, two of the more thoughtful observers of community on the Internet, observe, “It is widely believed and hoped that the ease of communicating and interacting online will lead to a flourishing of democratic institutions, heralding a new and vital arena of public discourse.  But to date most online groups have the structure of either an anarchy [if unmoderated] or a dictatorship [if moderated].” \  \ -- Ibid., p. 173

In a particularly striking parallel to the use of the telephone, a careful study by sociologist Barry Wellman and his colleagues of the use of computer-mediated communication by research scholars found that

Although the internet helps scholars to maintain ties over great distances, physical proximity still maters.  Those scholars who see each other often or work nearer to each other email each other more often.  Frequent contact on the Internet is a complement to frequent face-to-face contact, not a substitute for it.

\  \ -- Ibid., p. 179

[Via LostYouth]

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