I regularly look to pragmatic philosopher John Dewey to explain most things American. As a political philosopher, Dewey recognized the possibilities of American life; his was a social hope for post-colonial equity that resonates with my immigrant sensibilities.
Thus, long before journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell (2008) made the observation that even among the most intellectually gifted in America, self-realization and achievement “is less about talent than it is about opportunity”, John Dewey had crafted a philosophy grounded on the same conclusion. Dewey’s pragmatic metaphysics had established that as a democratic society, America’s central mission was to provide opportunities for individuals through which they could realize individual potential. This was the central goal of all democratic arrangements—to create the “Great Community” in which the self-realization of individuals was paramount. Self-realized individuals brought forth social advancement and improvement, which in turn expanded opportunities for further individual growth. Democratic means and aims were coinciding processes. If democratic ethics determined the distribution of and access to society’s goods—if means and aims were democratic—Dewey maintained that American society would flourish.
In the 21st century, America flourishes online. Online social media are part of the American experiential landscape now. How am I to understand the impact of social media technologies on democratic self-realization and achievement? Do online social media expand our range of experiences and deliver more occasions for accomplishment? Closer to home, does an online social networking site like Facebook do more for college students than meets the panoptic eye?
I’ve spent the greater part of the past five years thinking about 21st century social media, particularly Facebook, in light of Dewey’s democratic aims. Is Facebook—or whatever online social media replaces it in the future—a means to the 21st Century’s “Great Community”? Are students’ Facebook networks “communities” that will provide opportunities for self-realization and achievement that talent alone won’t? Can students leverage their online social networks to develop and deploy talents, to self-realize more fully, and to extend the landscape of experiences that determine their destiny? Can Facebook’s online networks provide students with greater familiarity, social fluency, and reach so that they will have many chances to offset real-world social and cultural forces that restrict self-realization? And to circle back to Dewey’s democratic ethics, can Facebook provide college students the opportunity to build the 21st century’s “Great Community?”
This week I will mull over and reflect on what it means and can mean for college students to leverage online social networks for democratic purposes. Up to now, my thinking has been shaped by social science research on social media technologies, scholarship that is unsurprisingly proliferating at an accelerated pace. And of course, to provide the scaffolding for my thinking, I will turn to Dewey’s and other American pragmatists’ musings on what constitutes American democracy, and what it means to live fully in such a community.