Sunday, May 1, 2011

Social media and social cohesion

The current topic on the UnderstandingSociety blog poll is a proposition about social cohesion:
The poll is still open, but as of today 70% of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that the Internet creates a basis for new forms of social cohesion, while only 16% somewhat or strongly disagree. On its face, a large majority of readers are optimistic about the ability of the Internet to contribute to a stronger national community. What the poll question doesn't reveal is the respondents' underlying thinking as the basis of their judgment. So let's see what some of the considerations might be.

First, what do we mean by "social cohesion"? Along with Durkheim, we can approach the concept by relating it to the bonds of morality and loyalty that lead members of a society to adapt their behavior to the perceived needs of society. A willingness to sacrifice in times of crisis, a willingness to defer to the common good, a willingness to conform to widespread social norms -- these are the sorts of things that go into the concept of social cohesion. A society that lacks all bonds of social cohesion is one in which individuals care only about their own interests; who pay attention only to their own individual ideas about morality; and who find the idea of sacrifice for the greater good to be for the gullible. (Interestingly, this is a state of affairs that Durkheim describes as "anomie", and it is the factor that he believes conduces to a heightened rate of suicide in a population; Suicide.) (Here is a nice contemporary survey of the sociological literature on social cohesion by Noah Friedkin; link.)

Where would the social basis of this kind of cohesion come from? Ferdinand Tönnies characterizes a traditional society with a strong basis for social cohesion in terms of the idea of "gemeinschaft"; whereas he describes a modern liberal-market society in terms of the idea of gesellschaft (Community and Society: (GEMEINSCHAFT AND GESELLSCHAFT)). According to Tönnies, traditional societies maintain social cohesion through traditional social mechanisms: face-to-face relations in a village, common religious institutions, and other institutions representing and inculcating collective values. And as these traditional mechanisms have lost traction in modern civil society, the intuitive idea is that modern societies are generally declining in the level of social cohesion that they reflect.

So how might the mechanisms of social connection provided by the Internet potentially influence the facts about social cohesion in a twenty-first century society? How might Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and webpages have effects that are either favorable or unfavorable for social cohesion? It seems that these capabilities of the Internet have the potential for working in both directions -- both undermining cohesion and enhancing cohesion. So overall, it is very difficult to assess the net impact of these capabilities.

First, consider a few tendencies in the negative direction. Much as Internet-based news sources have fragmented the audience for the network news -- and thereby have reduced the degree of commonality citizens have through their regular interactions with Walter Cronkite -- we might speculate that the Internet facilitates a fragmentation of social groups into smaller and smaller segments. So instead of a set of attitudes that bind citizens together as part of American society, we get micro-sets of attitudes that bind individuals together into micro-constituencies. This would seem to be a force working against social cohesion at the level of the population as a whole.

A related point stems from the evident ability of Internet tools to create ever-more strident groups of people around very specific issues and concerns. If each issue has its own website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, social media management strategies, and the like, individuals are drawn into greater engagement with ever-smaller groups of like-minded individuals. So it is increasingly difficult for politicians to create mass-based constituencies around a core set of values; there is a declining basis for a social consensus in a world in which individuals gravitate towards divisive social and political advocates.

These points suggest that the Internet has effects that are corrosive of social cohesion. What are the tendencies of the Internet that point in the other direction? The example of the use of Facebook during the democracy demonstrations in Egypt provides one positive indication. It would appear that activists were able to gain strong support from thousands of interested Egyptians through the real-time communication and social expression that Facebook pages enabled. This was a process of agglomeration rather than fragmentation for some period of time -- a process through which a broader and broader group of individuals became actively engaged with the values and current happenings associated with the pro-democracy movement.

Second, a little more generally, it is possible that social media like Facebook or YouTube may facilitate the development of more other-oriented interest on the part of the people who use them. If the United Way of Chicago or San Francisco can begin to attract tens of thousands of followers to a Facebook page with powerful, current information about the social needs of other Chicagoans or San Franciscans, we can imagine that there might be a rising level of willingness to get engaged in United Way fundraising and community efforts throughout the community. So YouTube and Facebook can become a contemporary alternative to the face-to-face relationships that Durkheim and Tönnies highlighted.

Third, several recent national elections have demonstrated that millions of people are willing to get involved in presidential and congressional campaigns through social media -- including the act of making online political contributions. The success of these efforts since 2006 suggests the faint possibility that online communities may begin to regain some of the pervasiveness that a fragmented television audience has lost. Perhaps this capability for aggregating large numbers of citizens around online communities of political interests suggests that the Internet can begin to help citizens build a broader consensus.

These considerations suggest that social media and the Internet have tendencies in both directions -- fragmentation and agglomeration -- with the result that its overall influence on cohesion may be neutral. In fact, we might speculate that social media enhance small group cohesion while undermining national cohesion.

In short, I'm inclined now to change my vote in the poll. I had supported the idea that the Internet is mildly favorable to increasing social cohesion. I now think that it's a wash, with negative as well as positive tendencies at work at the same time.


John said...

"On its face, a large majority of readers are optimistic about the ability of the Internet to contribute to a stronger national community." Not as this "somewhat agree" subject sees it. It's too big a jump from social cohesion to national community. I was thinking more of renewal of ties with friends and family members, who in my case are scattered in several parts of the world. "Nation" was not a consideration.,

Anonymous said...

What is your baseline scenario? I.e., in 2011, who do you think would own the newspapers, radiostations and tv networks and what message do you think they would try to sell if there wasn´t a internet?

Tom Hickey said...

I doubt that the Internet is involved causally in contributing to divisiveness rather than cohesion. I think it more probable that the segmentation is simply a reflection of existing divisions, and it allows for more cohesion among factions that were separate anyway.

On the other hand, I see strong contributions to societal cohesion emerging from the Internet in particular relating to global awareness and fellow-feeling among human beings. The Internet is preeminent among communications and transportation technology leading to a shrinking world.

Young people especially are coming together in the realization that the future belongs to them and that they had better do something about it. The Interment gives youth a sense of empowerment, and I think that we have seen the result of that through social networking via technology. While older people may participate in social networking, social networking forms the world of the young. It is foundational culturally.

I regard music as a leading indicator of where culture is headed, and the big advance in music has been world fusion. Popular music is perhaps the most powerful contemporary ritual, and it is becoming global in reach. Moreover, the Internet is sparking a revolution in popular expression, with anyone able to reach the world through portals like YouTube. Ven talented teenagers are "going viral." Much of this happening via music.

There is also a budding cohesion brewing through knowledge and education via the "free" phenomenon that now characterizes the Internet. Even major universities are putting their resources online gratis. Khan Academy is developing a video "university," and Wikipedia is becoming the "go-to" encyclopedia. Natural selection is operating through the number of hits.

On the blogs in which I participate, there are increasing numbers of international contributors and commenters. I can literally feel my boundaries expanding through this interaction. I assume that many others are having similar experiences.

In my view the Internet is the premier social technology of the day, if not of all time. Even where there is division, one can easily learn what the opposition is thinking and feeling though what they are saying publicly. I believe that this strengthens debate instead of hardening positions.

The Internet is bringing people together rather than dividing them. There is a natural segmentation in society and the Internet is also promoting that. "Let a hundred flowers bloom." I don't see that as divisive or detracting from cohesion. It just adds to cultural richness, and that culture is increasingly a global culture.

Unknown said...

For those who don't have broadband the Internet is divisive?

Rachel Barrett said...

Social media marketing is a technique that delivers excellent results, especially in view of viral campaigns and their impact on brand awareness and brand perception, provided that you approach it the right way. said...

A message from Holland:
According to recent scientific research young people are more connected, there's more cohesion because of their us of social media

It's something I gradually noticed (I''m a schoolibrarian in Amsterdam): that groups of young people that selected themselves can communicate and work very well together.
The problem in education is that a class is not a group. Because a class was put together at random by the school. But in a class there will several groups and within these groups this positive interaction will take place.

I think education would win win very much by making use of this situation. Give students time and space to also teach themselves.

Roeland Smeets