I’m willing to bet that any student today who makes a decision to study Political Science, or just takes an introductory course in the discipline, will, much like I did in my first year of university, come across Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” This is not at all a bad thing, given that Putnam’s argument is one of the most vital and thought-provoking ideas to ever address the nature of democracy and citizenship in the industrialized world. Just one encounter with the work and the reader is guaranteed to spend the rest of their life constantly returning to the question of what it means to be engaged in a free and democratic society, whether it be volunteering for important community causes, political campaigns, or NGOs or perhaps organizing support groups based upon common identification (i.e. a bible study group). I’ve considered staging a coup, but that’s a story for another day. Unfortunately, however, while Putnam’s ideas certainly puts one in a reflective mood and ignites a desire to reinvigorate one’s community, many simply fall victim to the epidemic that Putnam cites in post-WWII America and the rest of the industrialized world, namely a staggering decline in any such civic engagement among all demographics.
Putnam’s basic argument simply asserts that socioeconomic progress and modernization is dependent on civic solidarity and the presence of what the author refers to as “social capital,” referring to “…features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” Such organizations can be as small and simple as a book club or bowling league to much larger forms of organization such as church groups or labour unions. At the time he was writing, Putnam noted that each of these forms of engagement were in rapid decline. Putnam notes that serious volunteering had declined from 24% of adults to only 20% between 1974 and 1989 and involvement in parent-teacher organizations had seen a decline of 12% between 1964 and 1982.
Running parallel to these developments is a trend that many of us surely notice on a daily basis, namely an urge to criticize the government without willingness to organize and actually do anything about it. The alarming conclusion which Putnam reaches states that “…more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted int he last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers America increased by 10%, while league bowling decreased by 40%.”
The bowling example serves as a metaphor for what Putnam sees as an overall loss of a sense of community and in turn a decrease in meaningful democratic participation. The argument is a compelling one, as are the reasons which underpin it, but I believe that were he asked today, Putnam would and should change his mind on one particular assertion, specifically that the relationship between technology and leisure time is partly to blame for this decline in civic engagement. With the rise of the web, and the transition from a passive to active mode of participation in technology-based forms of entertainment, I believe that there are new opportunities for fostering engagement and community, and that is why I love blogging.
Putnam’s argument about technology and its detrimental effects on leisure time, stated in full, runs as follows:
There is reason to believe that deep-seated technological trends are radically “privatizing” or “individualizing” our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation. The most obvious and probably the most powerful instrument of this revolution is television. Tim-budget studies in the 1960s showed that the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes in the way Americans passed their days and nights. Television has made our communities wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment. The same logic applies to the replacement of vaudeville by the movies and now of movies by the VCR. The new “virtual reality” helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests? It is a question that seems worth exploring more systematically.
Technology has no doubt come a long way since Putnam made that statement (notice the mention of VCRs) and in its most recent development, the relationship between technology and engagement becomes more complex and not necessarily one of exclusion. This is especially true in the advent of social media and the web in general. While television was indeed entirely passive and individualistic, this is less true of the web, which can very well foster creativity and the sharing of information in a manner which enables social capital rather than destroys it.
The web is, at least for me, infinitely more appealing than television for this reason. With the ease afforded in uploading and finding information on the web, I’m given the opportunity to seek out as well as create things that interest me and perhaps never even crossed my mind. In contrast, television requires that I consume whatever happens to be offered and I either love it or leave it, whereas the web is a much wider space to which a far greater and diverse body of individuals have access. Any curious mind is instantly at home on the web, no matter what interests they might have.
It is for the very same reasons that I love blogging. Rather than passively pissing away my leisure time in front of the idiot box, I can pool that time into creating something which I hope will be meaningful, both to myself an others. If I do this well, I’m given the opportunity to share my knowledge of a particular subject area and pull from others as well, all with minimal effort or expense. I can also break out the snark and hopefully rile up some controversy, and there’s no man alive who doesn’t enjoy that. Furthermore, the web presents far more independent thought and critical thinking that you’ll perhaps never find on television. Through this diversity of perspectives and ideas, there are greater opportunities for learning and insight as well as laughs and entertainment.
In another form of social media that I enjoy thoroughly, Twitter, this is evident as well. Yes, there is no shortage of garbage on Twitter, but the best tweeters have harnessed the potential of that particular platform as used it to simply share information and insight. Among these tweeters are Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, who are constantly linking to any and all information relating to technology and social media and their effects on the future of journalism. Then, of course, the man who I consider to be the king of all tweeters, Roger Ebert, can always be counted on to find the most curious items from the furthest corners of the web and share any opinion that might prove to be divisive.
While television kept us as consumers, the web provides the mechanism to actively create. Clay Shirky, one of the most astute students of social media, elucidates this perfectly in a discussion with Daniel Pink in Wired. Shirky states:
Television was a solitary activity that crowded out other forms of social connection. But the very nature of these new technologies fosters social connection—creating, contributing, sharing. When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same. When someone buys a computer or mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one. This lets ordinary citizens, who’ve previously been locked out, pool their free time for activities they like and care about. So instead of that free time seeping away in front of the television set, the cognitive surplus is going to be poured into everything from goofy enterprises like lolcats, where people stick captions on cat photos, to serious political activities like Ushahidi.com, where people report human rights abuses.
The potential to create and organize via the web enables users to use technological forms of leisure to enable and encourage civic participation, mainly through promoting causes online, organizing initiatives using social media, and sharing information which typically does not gain any traction in more typical mediums like television or newspapers. This is not to say that the web is itself social capital as Putnam would imagine it, but it certainly presents the opportunity to engage in broader and more thought-provoking conversations which are far more fluid rather than stagnant, as more traditional types of media tend to be. This being the case, technology in leisure ought not be viewed as necessarily detrimental to civic engagement and knowledge. Accomplishing this places a profound burden on users to seek out the wide variety of opinions and ideas on the web and to make meaningful contributions to this vast pool of knowledge, but a potential is nonetheless present, which in itself refutes the notion that technology necessarily hurts social capital.
After the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America, in which Putnam was a participant, a group of academics, politicians, civic organizers, etc. created the Better Together initiative, aimed at reviving social capital in America. The site lists 150 things you can do to be part of such a revival and reinvigoration of democracy. The suggestions range from the simple and practical (#3: Register to vote and actually do it) to the more complex (#37: Invite local government officials to speak at your workplace) to the downright surreal (#63: Persuade a local restaurant to have a designated “meet people” table). Nowhere in the list is there any mention of the web and it’s potential to foster and organize engagement. In fact, the only suggestion offered at Better Together that seems to come close to mentioning the web or social media is #86, which states “Log off and go to the park.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the suggestions offered, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t occasionally log off and go to the park, but it’s clear that Putnam and company are relying on a definition of engagement and community which is simply old-fashioned. The web is the very definition of a community – a coming together of diverse individuals for the purpose of exchange of all kinds. Furthermore, though it may not be apparent with the amount of garbage on the internet, but the web and in particular the blogosphere and social media, do have standards for success. If one’s activity within any of those spheres is to be in any way meaningful, effective, or successful, it has to offer others within that community something of value (i.e. knowledge, insight, entertainment). Those not offering any of those commodities, are branded as leeches or trolls, or their presence is largely ignored. There is therefore a social incentive within the blogging community to offer something meaningful and genuine.
I receive no financial or utilitarian benefit from blogging. Rather, I simply enjoy the notion of being part of a larger community driven by ideas and discussion and which allows me to exercise my creative muscles in any manner I see fit. The web is participation, not passive consumption. It sees communities as transcending one’s immediate surroundings and thus expands the opportunities for seeking out perspectives.
The web is not the be-all-end-all of civic engagement, but in our current context, ought to be a vital component of that engagement. Citizens are transformed by activities like blogging from mere consumers to active creators or news and ideas, which may in turn sow the seeds for greater action. It is for these reasons that I love blogging and why Robert Putnam should too.
The individual must be part of the conversation and among the driving forces of public discourse, and too often old media has forced citizens into consumers and nothing more. Furthermore, a truly robust public discourse reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and context, and incorporates new ideas, giving citizens the opportunity to completely reinvent their concepts of what it in fact means to be a citizen. Older, passive modes of discourse (i.e. traditional classroom lectures, newspapers, and television), according to the aforementioned Jeff Jarvis, are all bullshit, and I would hope that Robert Putnam would agree with this as well.