Civic Engagement, The Interwebs, and The United States of Facebook

Thanks to apartmenttherapy.com for the Faux Vintage Tech Ad.      Click on image for original.

In 1995, Robert Putnam created a stir in academic circles for his essay (and later book) “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” If my memory of Sociology class serves me right, Putnam essentially claimed that the very vibrancy of America’s democracy was in decline, due in large part to the decline in social connectedness and civic engagement. Despite the many well-reasoned arguments and examples he offered, one explanation stuck: our democracy was in jeopardy because – while more people were bowling, fewer people were bowling as members of bowling leagues – more people were bowling alone.

It has been said that technology is at the root of our civic dis-engagement. Putnam himself cited “the technological transformation of our leisure” as a signal of our cultural/sociopolitical downfall. With each innovation, we found fewer reasons to go out and congregate, and more reasons to stay home by ourselves. First it was the radio (no more town criers and dance halls); then it was the ice box (no more daily trips to the butcher, the grocer, the soda shoppe…); then it was the television (no more drive-ins, newspapers, or books). Now with computers (stationary and mobile alike) and the internet, it’s as if we’ve locked the doors and drawn the shades on any human interaction or community building at all. Or have we?

A few decades years later, we find ourselves once again re-imagining our definitions of civic engagement, and extending the boundaries of “community.” According to the internet (so it must be true!), if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest nation in the world. Over 1.23 billion people monthly choose to be part of a community, a place where they can share their thoughts, comment on each other’s foibles, document their lives in photos, scream at critics, bully and be bullied, embarrass themselves, declare their love, make a call to action, pledge their loyalty, be swayed by advertising, be spied on by their boss – an almost endless list of ways in which they can interact with others in the next room, or two continents away. Maybe it’s some kind of connection, after all.

Beyond Facebook, there are other ways technology (namely the interwebs) has provided alternative answers to important questions of civic engagement:

  • Is voter turnout still low?  Yes, though the last three presidential election cycles have shown improvement – quite possibly due to implementation of new-fangled social media campaigns. And Change.org has taken petitions from dozens of signatures on street corners, and turned them into millions of signatures impacting legislation around the world
  • Is PTA attendance low?  Yes, but Google “virtual PTA” and you might be surprised at just how active parents (potentially) are.
  • Are people donating to charity these days?  Well, there’s the small matter of Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the growing field of crowdfunding platforms that helped solicit over $500 million dollars in pledges in 2014 – up from around $480 million in pledges in 2013.

Are technology and civic engagement antithetical constructs? Or is each, in our world, as we know it, dependent on the other to survive and thrive?

[These musings do not attempt to provide the most definitive discourse on the new civic engagement and its impact on our democracy. In fact, the reader is invited to critique, comment on, question, and even mock the content therein. But to do so, you’ll have to read this blog on your computer, or mobile device, and click on “Leave a Reply” below. You can also add this blog to your RSS feed, or enter your email via the ‘Get My Poop Now’ button to the right, to have posts and comments come directly to your email inbox. See, now that’s engagement!]

**The following graphic isn’t necessarily specific to this post. I just think the phrase internet penetration is filthy fun.

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