Rethinking Virtual CommunitiesOrder DescriptionReading of the excerpt that is included in the attachment?Rethinking Virtual Communities? Writing Exercise: Choose one of the websites from the essay, then look at the site. Next, analyze why or why not it is a useful tool for citizens (especially visual elements).Reading Responses are short papers that are tightly focused on the day?s reading and show clear evidence of critical thinking about the texts (not a summary of the reading).500-750 words (about 2-2.5 pages).The Prospects for the Public SphereWill citizens use the Internet to influence the nations of the world to become more democratic? Or will our efforts be ineffectual or even work to amplify the power of state or corporate autocracies? All other social questions about the impact of life online are secondary to this one.In the first edition of The Virtual Community, I coined the neologism disinfotainment to describe that sphere in which special effects, television laugh tracks, manufactured ?news? programming, and cross media pro motion of cultural products serve to distract and misinform a pacified population of unprotecting consumers, as well as to return profits to the owners of the cultural producers. I also dabbled in the work of Ju?rgen Habermas, because his notion of the ?public sphere? intuitively seemed to me the best way to frame the political import of social cyberspaces. If I can be allowed to temporarily jack up the theoretical infrastructure for a social theory of cyberspace I started building into the clear blue sky of 1993, I need to insert Adorno and Horkheimer?s ideas.Adorno and Horkheimer were concerned with the fusion between the culture industry and mindless entertainment. Amusement is specific to the twentieth century mass cultural industry and is simply another part of the cycle of routinization. Their attack on the culture industry, first published in 1944, claimed that mass art was based on ?a medicinal bath? of amusement and laughter, rather than on transcendence or happiness (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972). People were amused and liberated from the need to think and their laughter affirmed existing society.Are virtual communities part of a last hold out from the commodification of media culture, a place of resistance and autonomy and self-empowerment? A place where we have a chance of seeing reality for what it is, so that we can refuse to accept the present and try to change the future. Or are they disinfotainment in the guise of antidisinfotainment? Is it another way to amuse ourselves to death? These are the key questions Adorno and Horkheimer would most likely raise about the new phenomena of social cyberspaces.The most serious critique of this book and the most serious concern about the social impact of the Internet is the challenge to my claim that manytomany Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need)ions could contribute to the health of democracy by making possible better communications among citizens. It seems that a great deal of the critique, although not all, is directed at one specific paragraph. I wrote this in 1993:We temporarily have access to a tool that could bring conviviality and under standing into our lives and might help revitalize the public sphere. The same tool, improperly controlled and wielded, could become an instrument of tyranny. The vision of a citizen designed, citizen controlled worldwide communications network is a version of technological utopianism that could be called the vision of ?the electronic agora.? In the original democracy, Athens, the agora was the marketplace, and more?it was where citizens met to talk, gossip, argue, size each other up, find the weak spots in political ideas by debating about them. But another kind of vision could apply to the use of the Net in the wrong ways, a shadow vision of a less utopian kind of place?the Panopticon.Two of the criticisms directed at this paragraph have caused me to reconsider my original statement. The phrase ?tool that could bring? has an implication of technological determinism that I simply let slip through because I wasn?t paying sufficient attention. Now, I pay more attention when Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need)ing the way people, tools, and institutions affect each other. It?s not healthy to assume we don?t have a choice. Tools aren?t always neutral. But neither do they determine our destinies, immune to human efforts. The rest of the book isn?t overly deterministic, but that paragraph is probably cited and challenged by dozens of scholarly essays over the years for reasons I have humbly come to understand.Another flaw in my original draft is that I failed to make it clear that I was identifying, not advocating, the utopian version of an ?electronic agora.? I also should have mentioned that the affluent zeitgeist of Athenian democracy rested on the backs of slaves. As David Silver, one of the most thoughtful critical commentators, told me: ?I?d make it clear in your new edition: neither Athens nor America nor cyberspace is a utopia.?I agree, now that critics have helped educate me. I would argue that we can still learn something from both experiments about the social nature of democracy, and about the influence of public communications on political action.In an age in which most of the journalism seen by most of the world is produced by a subsidiary of one of a few multinational entertainment companies, the question of what will remain truly ?public? about communications is central today. It might not make sense tomorrow. If a theme park is all you know, you aren?t going to be asking where all the real parks are. In America, the idea of ?public property? has grown increasingly unfashionable in the physical world of freeways, malls, and skyscrapers. Is there still space in cyberspace for public property, public discourse, public opinion that emerges from informed deliberation among citizens?Which brings us to the most serious challenge to the original draft of this book, that virtual communities might be bogus substitutes for true civic engagement or outright directly harmful to the public sphere. In 1995, two scholars, Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson, presented a talk, ?Computer Mediated Communication and the American Collectivity,? at the annual convention of the American Communication Association. With the permission of the authors, I?ve hosted it on my web site since then .Perhaps the most useful point Fernback and Thompson raise is: ?Ultimately, we believe, the hope placed in CMC is misplaced because change will occur not by altering the technology but by reforming the political and social environment from which that technology flows.? If any population is to succeed in this alteration, are we to do it without tools? And assuming the success of such a reformation of the political and social environment, aren?t we still faced with the challenge of learning how to use technology? Or are we to abandon the factories and office buildings and return to hunting and gathering? I agree, and must emphasize, that hopes placed in CMC or any technology are false hopes. Hopes must be placed in humans. I believe that knowing how to use tools is part of any successful human enterprise.Fernback and Thompson?s serious challenges must also be weighed in the light of reports such as Christopher Mele, who documents the story of how a group of low-income residents of public housing, all African American women, used online communications to transform and empower the residents association in a two-year battle with the housing authority: ?Once wired, it is difficult to predict the effects of online communication for collective action conducted by disempowered groups. For the women activists at Jervay, their connection to the Internet peeled away some of the historic and systematic layers that blanketed access to essential information. Whether it translates to long-term success is per haps less important than the positive effect upon the activist role of the women themselves? (Mele, 1999).The power to publish and communicate has no magical ability to make democracy happen. Only people can do that. No tool can make democracy happen without the actions of millions of people?but those millions of people won?t succeed without the right tools. Most of what needs to be done has to be done face-to-face, person to person?civic engagement means dealing with your neighbors in the world where your body lives. But an important part of the work to be done will be mediated by new communication technologies. We need to relearn and continue to teach the communication skills necessary for maintaining healthy democracies.Information sources and communication media that were until recently the province of the wealthy and powerful are used daily by mil lions. Discourse among informed citizens can be improved, revived, re stored to some degree of influence?but only if a sufficient number of people learn how to use communication tools properly, and apply them to real-world political problem-solving. Surely, this opportunity is worthy of serious consideration. Surely, we owe it to ourselves to make an effort to discover whether the charges of Fernback and Thompson and other critics are true in practice as well as theory.The global corporations that have consolidated control of distribution of news and entertainment will continue to command attention, reap profits, and exert influence. But they are no longer the only game in town. If there is one question that lies at the foundation of the uncertainty about the Internet?s future it is whether the technical democratization of publishing will prove to be a credible challenge to existing publishing interests.I believe the publicness of democracy has been eroded, for the reasons Neil Postman cited in Amusing Ourselves to Death (Postman, 1985): The immense power of television as a broadcaster of emotion laden images, combined with the ownership of more and more news media by fewer and fewer global entertainment conglomerates, has reduced much public discourse, including Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need)ions of vital issues, to sound bites and barrages of images.In theory and a few practical examples, centralized opinion shaping mechanisms are challenged by the decentralization afforded by many to many media. But that is far from saying that the future will be less manipulated and more freely chosen by informed citizens. Much remains to be done for that rosy scenario to become a reality.Theories and opinions about the Internet are plentiful. A good question to ask is how many real online tools exist for citizens to use today? Are there examples of successful experiments in online civic involvement that ought to be widely replicated? As a definition of ? civic involvement,? I suggest the one offered in Robert Wuthnow?s Loose Connections: Joining Together in America?s Fragmented Communities: ?Broadly conceived, civic involvement consists in participation in social activities that either mediate between citizens and government or provide ways for citizens to pursue common objectives with or without the help of government.?The public sphere is where Kim Alexander operates when her organization, the California Voter?s Foundation , uses email to organize a campaign to require political candidates to put their financial disclosures on the Internet. Civic involvement is what Paul Resnick and his students are trying to foster when they go door to door in their neighborhoods in Ann Arbor, Michigan, creating web pages and email lists intended to help people who live on the same block get to know one another . The public sphere is what Steven Clift and colleagues at the Minnesota EDemocracy project seek to extend when they bring candidates for state office online to publish position statements and field questions from citizens. A little investigation reveals that dozens, probably hundreds, of profitmaking and nonprofit enterprises are experimenting with different tools for civic involvement. Among the most notable are:? CapAdvantage for communication with officials, and other citizens. Their page, titled ?Tools for Online Grassroots Advocacy and Mobilization,? offers a comprehensive guide to Congressional publications, directories to identify state and national congressional representatives. spot news and issues tracking.? EThe People for petitions. ?Welcome to America?s Interactive Town Hall: Where Active Citizens Connect with Their Government and Each Other?? If your car is swallowed up by a pothole the size of Poughkeepsie, EThe People can help you find the person you need to tell about it. Simply come to our site, click on ?roads and transportation,? type in your address and we?ll forward your note to the right officials in your city. And if your public works commissioner doesn?t have Internet access, we?ll convert your concern to a fax! Are you an organizer? With EThe People, you can start a petition about the same pothole and contact 10 neighbors to sign it?all on one site.? Freedom Forum is a good example of vibrant Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need)ion of political issues via message boards, along with Internet radio and news on rights. ?The Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.?? Civic Practices Network describes itself thus: ?Born of the movement for a ?new citizenship? and ?civic revitalization,? CPN is a collaborative and nonpartisan project dedicated to bringing practical tools for public problem solving into community and institutional settings across America.?? The title of the Freespeech.org page . is ?Free Speech Internet Television.?? VolunteerMatch has provided volunteer based technology assistance to nonprofits.? National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology is ?a leadership network of nonprofit staff members, funders, and technology assistance providers working together to analyze the technology needs of the nonprofit sector, and to develop a blueprint for how it can use technology more effectively and creatively.?? Guidestar is a clearinghouse for financial information: ?Find information on the activities and finances of more than 650,000 nonprofit organizations, the latest news on philanthropy, and resources for donors and nonprofits.?? While many big organizations are incorporating donation activities into their web sites, smaller sites are going with a donation service like icharity : ?Free Internet fundraising service and online donations portal.?? Cause related marketing type services like GreaterGood provide online consumers the ability to send a portion of product purchase prices to designated organizations: ?Shop where it matters.?? VoxCap aggregates tools and resources for online civic engagement as well as for ?building a community of engaged citizens, where social capital can be accumulated and brought to bear,? according to Jeff Fisher, VoxCap?s Director of Community Development.? Two enterprising political satirists quit their jobs in the winter of 2000 and hit the road in a van, following the early stages of the presidential campaign from the road, updating their web site daily from their own zany and well-informed angle. The site is well designed and informative as well as funny. Perhaps political journalism might follow their lead and loosen up.? The Association for Community Networking is a community of interest and support for the hundreds of people working to use Internet communications to improve social capital in face-to-face communities.? The Living Constitution Society is dedicated to creating a continuous flow of interrelationship between government, industry, academia, citizens, and nonprofit organizations.If the public sphere is where people act as citizens by Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need)ing the issues that concern them, and civil society is the general name for the associations that citizens organize for social, charitable, and political purposes, the name for the common wealth that they gain from acting cooperatively, in concert, rather than competitively as individuals seeking to maximize individual gain, is ?social capital.?Civic Practices Network defines social capital this way (http://www. cpn.org/sections/tools/models/social_capital.html):Social capital refers to those stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. Networks of civic engagement, such as neighborhood associations, sports clubs, and cooperatives, are an essential form of social capital, and the denser these networks, the more likely that members of a community will cooperate for mutual benefit. This is so, even in the face of persistent problems of collective action (tragedy of the commons, prisoner?s dilemma, etc.), because networks of civic engagement:? foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity by creating expectations that favors given now will be returned later;? facilitate coordination and communication, and thus create channels through which information about the trustworthiness of other individuals and groups can flow, and be tested and verified;? embody past success at collaboration, which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration on other kinds of problems;? increase the potential risks to those who act opportunistically that they will not share in the benefits of current and future transactions.Social capital is productive, since two farmers exchanging tools can get more work done with less physical capital; rotating credit associations can generate pools of financial capital for increased entrepreneurial activity; and job searches can be more efficient if information is embedded in social networks. Social capital also tends to cumulate when it is used, and be depleted when not, thus creating the possibility of both virtuous and vicious cycles that manifest themselves in highly civic and uncivic communities.The question of how to measure social capital is central to under standing the health of the public sphere. Indeed, as I will show later, there are those who question the idea that the social should be considered to be a form of capital. In an influential article, ?Bowling Alone: America?s Declining Social Capital? (Journal of Democracy 6:1, January 1995, 65?78), Robert Putnam documented a broad decline in civic engagement and social participation in the United States over the past 35 years. Citizens vote less, go to church less, Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need) government with their neighbors less, are members of fewer voluntary organizations, have fewer dinner parties, and generally get together less for civic and social purposes. Putnam argues that this social disengagement is having major consequences for the social fabric and for individual lives. At the societal level, social disengagement is associated with more corrupt, less efficient government and more crime. When citizens are involved in civic life, their schools run better, their politicians are more responsive, and their streets are safer. At the individual level, social disengagement is associated with poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health. When people have more social contact, they are happier and healthier, physically and mentallyPutnam concluded his article prescriptively:In the established democracies, ironically, growing numbers of citizens are questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions at the very moment when liberal democracy has swept the battlefield, both ideologically and geopolitically. In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter century ago. High on our scholarly agenda should be the question of whether a comparable erosion of social capital may be under way in other advanced democracies, perhaps in different institutional and behavioral guises. High on America?s agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust.The questions raised Putnam?s articles are about as serious as questions get: Is the social ?glue? that holds together democratic societies going to dissolve as we retreat from civic participation into more private pursuits? If, as Putnam proposed in a follow-up article, ?The Strange Dis appearance of Civic America,? (PS, American Political Science Association, winter 1996), the diffusion of television through the population over the past forty years was strongly correlated with the disintegration of civic participation during that time, it is indeed important to ask now which way the Internet might push us in the future?toward or away from authentic community and deep personal ties. Or are we using the wrong assumptions and terminology when addressing the way civic practices are changing, the way Wellman and Cerulo believe we are misframing social science research in cyberspace?Another contemporary student of community, also a Harvard professor, Robert Wuthnow, recently wrote a book, Loose Connections: Joining Together in America?s Fragmented Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), that addresses the way social affiliations seem to be changing. These paragraphs describing the book summarize Wuthnow?s thesis, offering an alternative to Putnam?s view of the changes that seem to be taking place:It has become common to lament Americans? tendency to pursue individual interests apart from any institutional association. But to those who charge that Americans are at home watching television rather than getting involved in their communities, Robert Wuthnow answers that while certain kinds of civic engagement may be declining, innovative new forms are taking their place.Acknowledging that there has been a significant change in-group affiliation? away from traditional civic organizations?Wuthnow shows that there has been a corresponding movement toward affiliations that respond to individual needs and collective concerns. Many Americans are finding new and original ways to help one another through short-term task oriented networks. Some are combining occupational skills with community interests in nonprofit and voluntary associations. Others use communication technologies, such as the World Wide Web, to connect with likeminded people in distant locations. And people are joining less formal associations, such as support groups and lobbying efforts, within their home communities.People are still connected, but because of the realities of daily life, they form ?loose connections.? These more fluid groups are better suited to dealing with today?s needs than the fraternal orders and ladies? auxiliaries of the past. Wuthnow looks at the challenges that must be faced if these innovative forms of civic involvement are to flourish, and calls for resources to be made available to strengthen the more constructive and civic dimensions of these organizations.Outlining a program for measuring the health of civil society and defining social capital in a way that doesn?t transform human relation ships into commodities is beyond the scope of this book. However, it is at the very heart of the kinds of Discuss (check midcourse.net for the help you need)ions that must take place on a broad basis, online and offline, among millions of people. It is in the service of this broad, citizen driven, democratic discourse that online tools for publishing and communicating hold out a hope. If online community is NOT a commodity, it is only because people work to make it so. The hope I hold out for myself and suggest to others is that people will accomplish a task using a tool. Hope should not be vested in the tool itself. One important way of using tools wisely is informed government regulation. A tax break for corporations that donate to the public sphere, for example, might do more good than all the rhetoric and all the books decrying the deterioration of civic engagement. Consider the following scenario, not as a recipe for utopia, but a thought experiment.A tiny proportion of the gargantuan profits reaped by telecommunications service providers could be contributed to a well-managed fund (with its own budget and expenditures open for public inspection) that insures that every citizen has access to publicly available terminals, a free email account, and free access to introductory classes on citizen use of the Net. In a world where everyone has affordable access and citizens become actively engaged in informing themselves and communicating with one another, will it be possible to make government more responsive to citizen needs?and perhaps more responsible to the public trust? All proceedings and filings at the city, state, and national level could be made available to all citizens in dynamically updated databases, with easy-to-use web interfaces. GIS systems could enable citizens to visualize the impacts of proposed development on regional cultural and ecosystems. We could know when our legislators trade stock in companies their legislation affects.The scenario offered in the previous paragraph is offered as an example of what I believe we should work to build, not as an unattainably ideal society expected to emerge magically from technology. There is no guarantee that the potential power of many-to-many communications will make a difference in political battles about the shape of our future. Indeed, the odds are against a media literate population seizing the opportunities the Internet offers. But I believe the opportunity for lever age is there, waiting to be seized, ignored, or mishandled. The hegemony of culture, power, and capital that critics from Marx to Fernback and Thompson describe is a potent force to be reckoned with. But if we don?t try to make a difference in the way tools are used and people are treated, we definitely won?t make a difference.The first step in acting effectively is to know what you are acting on. Collectively, we know only a small amount about human behavior in social cyberspaces. We need to know a lot more. I hope that this chapter, and the updated bibliography, helps inspire and orient those who pursue that knowledge, debate its meaning, and put it into action in meaningful ways.Category: essay

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