Archive for 15 August 2011

Challenges of Building Social Capital Online

15 August 2011

Last week, I opined on the decay and potential renewal of “social capital” in America. As chronicled by Robert D. Putnam, tectonic shifts in American culture, society and the economy led to decreased participation in civic organizations and dissipated communities, which in turn weakened the social fabric that holds together American life. In that introductory post, I proposed the online sphere as an alternate “public space” to strengthen (not replace) offline communities, and to put forward a few questions, the first of which I’ll try to answer here: How can new technologies help foster civic engagement and create social capital, without detracting from the same?

I’m not blindly sanguine about the impact technology can and will have on human relationships and society. We can sit at a bus stop in New York and video chat with a friend in Morocco or Thailand– a phenomenon that by historical standards might fairly be considered a miracle– but that same act can make us blind to the world at our feet. A few months back, the New York times ran an article describing “parallel play” in the fully wired (er, wireless) American home. Perhaps you know the scene: a family is gathered together in the home for the evening, but the room is quiet, each individual gazing, grimacing, giggling at their respective device, headphones in. These scenes are creepy, and they should serve as a reminder that just as these tools have the potential to bring people together, so too can they divide us and make us distant from those right around us.

“Go online to get offline” is a catchy phrase (and has been adopted by sites like Meetup.com and dating site HowAboutWe to describe their approach), but it’s perhaps the most concise summation of the social potential I see in network– and especially mobile– technologies. I’m not interested in online qua online. Purely online activities can have their value, but they’re unlikely to build social capital. An online protest never threatened any existing power structure. An online church service isn’t going to build a strong community. And I tend to find that even online conversation can only sustain a personal relationship, rarely build one. Rather, I see potential where online human networks intersect with offline, “real world” communities. (more…)