After years of decline, community engagement is once again on the rise—thanks to the influence of technology.
In his famous book Bowling Alone, professor Robert Putnam explored how perceptions of "community" have been dramatically altered over the past three generations. Putnam is careful to distinguish strong and weak ties, noting that strong ties (i.e., close family and friends) continue to be the most important across generations and time. Ties to the wider community, or "weaker" ties, have been in dramatic decline for the past 30 years.
Putnam published his work in 2000, at the time when Generation X and the Baby Boomers dominated the workforce. Putnam notes that "Gen X’ers are less interested in politics, less informed about current events, less likely to contact public officials, less likely to attend church, less likely to work with others on some community project, and less likely to contribute financially to a church or political cause." He offers a number of reasons why this is the case: an individualist work culture, greater skepticism around politics and family life, and no major coalescing life events, like the defeat of Hitler or the assassination of President Kennedy.
Recent studies suggest that the tide may be turning on community engagement. A study by the Center for Work Life Policy found that Gen Y’ers are eager to contribute to the greater social good, suggesting a trend away from their highly individualistic predecessors. Further, Generation Y has been especially hard hit by what I would call the greatest coalescing crisis of our time: the global recession.
Gen Y has become the community-building engine of our time, burdened with economic hardship, raised in a world of corporate skepticism, and eager to use their (over-educated) selves to make a difference. Although our ties may be weakening through mass media and less direct civic engagement, the growth of community has persisted through stronger, yet more dispersed networks of weak ties. Here are some examples of how our notions of community are changing:
Modern day social capital is increasingly associated with technology-facilitated trust. Whereas personal relationships were once necessary for intimate transactions like lending money, borrowing goods, or even taking the time to teach a group of strangers a skill or trade, new models of interaction are transforming long-arm transactions into a more personal exchange.
Companies like Neighborgoods allow people in a neighborhood to share goods (like a ladder, drill, or bicycle pump) that they are not using—with the ability to review the other user’s reviews and profile information. Want to learn how to knit, create a Wordpress site, or write a memoir? Skillshare is a way for people to share their expertise with complete strangers through a series of volunteer-based and organized classes.
Technology-fueled face-to-face connection emulates traditional community by enabling people to form trusting relationships with people in geographic proximity. While the strength of these ties are likely weaker than the traditional community, church, and social organization ties that Putnam discusses, they are re-engaging participants into social circles that have been on the decline.
I am pretty sure that LGBT "gaymers," interracial daters, and people obsessed with quantifying all aspects of their lives never thought that they would have their own organized sub-communities. Meetup has revolutionized the world of social networking and connection—the way that we find each other, the way we stay in touch and the way we explore new ways to work and play together. Meetup facilitates in-person gatherings, giving participants the opportunity to form strong bonds through face-to-face interactions. Although these groups are generally less focused on civic engagement than traditional community groups, the underlying intent of building connection around shared interests remains intact
Post-industrial thought has re-envisioned the business organization as the new "social" glue replacing the more traditional roles of religious organizations or community-based clubs. The pervasiveness of technology-enhanced community makes this idea more plausible than ever before. Work communities created around skills, expertise, and even common interests or identities (i.e., LGBT or parent resource groups) disrupt the way people experience both a physical space and their online professional lives.
Workers are not only able to find each other based on a mix and match of desired traits, but they are also increasingly able to use technology-enhanced communication to connect with the consumers they want to serve. Companies like Lego have found innovative ways to use their products to create communities of fans and consumers (see the Rebrick website) and other companies like IBM and Cemex have learned that enabling their employees to share personal and professional information fuels innovation. (To learn all about the new social workplace, check out the website for the upcoming Re:working Conference.)
Putnam would (rightfully) argue that the breakdown of the modern community still persists in lower socio-economic populations where home computers, smartphones, and higher education are a novelty. But transformation of our notions of community will alter the way we connect and work with other people so that the ideas eventually trickle down to previously disenfranchised economic segments, making sharing and socialization the norm. None of this is to say that technology will (or should) replace the church group, the local community garden association, or the town hall meeting. What it does mean is that technology will enhance these traditional civic gatherings and create new opportunities for connection and creativity that will continue to challenge our notions of community.