For John Dewey, the ultimate challenge of American democracy was to achieve the “Great Community” (1927/1946). Dewey recognized in the early decades of the 20th century that technology would alter the development of democratic community, but only if realized effectively. If technologies could expand communication and extend the range of associations and relationships among women and men, they had the potential to become means to democratic community life. As he wrote in 1927, the “[t]elegraph, telephone and now radio, cheap and quick mails, the printing press” made the distribution of “news” faster, cheaper and more common. But, as Dewey warned, the communicative worth of these technologies in a democracy was the extent to which these technologies enabled self-directed communication, the meaning that is made of the communication, and its social consequences.
Fast forward to the “new” technologies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Leave behind the Touch-Tone phones, Apple’s first mass-marketed personal computer (anyone remember “Lisa”?), and those eight inch floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs. Look at technology now and the setting for the distribution of news, and more importantly, our communicative acts: 80% of all teenagers use online social networking (primarily Facebook and if Justin Timberlake has his Suit & Tie way, the resurrecting MySpace will regain some social media share among teens); 62% of young adults get their news, information on current events and politics from these sites, and an overwhelming number of them (roughly 92%) have posted photographs of themselves on a variety of social networking sites. Photos and videos are currency on social media sites. Instagram is especially appealing to Latinos, women and African Americans; women dominate Pinterest; and the urbanite is more likely to Tweet than someone down on the farm.
Is this what Dewey meant? Is this the expanded communication that Dewey believed would promote democratic community? Are Tweets, video uploads, News Feeds, and photo streams the “associated or joint activity” that is Dewey’s condition for the formation of a democratic community? Are my friendship-based online networks a means of meaningful communication that associates me to individuals and to groups and those groups to other groups? Are my social network communications simply virtual forms of interaction—the 21st century’s equivalent to bowling leagues?
Political scientist Robert Putnam has concluded that with the decrease in ‘real-life’ (non-virtual) interactions since the 1950’s, civic engagement has been compromised and consequently, democracy has been weakened. Putnam’s solution is to re-connect, to join a bowling league, to forego bowling alone. It is in association and connection with others that Putnam believes civic engagement and democratic sociality is achieved. The mid-1960s were the halcyon days for bowling leagues, a time when civic engagement and political participation was a very American thing to do. Putnam wants the technology of automatic pinspotter to create the conditions necessary for the communication required in democracy.
I am not so convinced that bowling leagues are the way to ensure the growth and evolution of democratic communities that Dewey theorized. [Full disclosure here: I am a NYC high school bowling titleholder and long ago belonged to a bowling league. I respect the ten-pin, big ball roll.] Research on social media use—especially among youth and young adults—indicates that Facebook use exposes young people to diverse perspectives, i.e. young adults are exposed to ideas and views unlike their own through the communications on their network. Friends closest to them (perhaps those friends they’d bowl with?) tend to have similar views. It is the network association with ‘friends’ in the distal nodes of the network that present divergent perspectives. These are those “weak ties” that provide us with social capital outside our kin and that (at least for Dewey) are of social consequence in a democracy. There is also growing evidence that political views are shared by college students through Facebook communications and that these messages create the fabric of students’ political and civic engagement. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Facebook use positively impacts civic engagement among college students. In Networked, Rainie and Wellman demonstrate that when large, loosely knit groups of individuals are connected in an online social network, they are free of the restriction placed on them by tightly knit groups. In other words, their autonomy is increased and their opportunities for learning are amplified.
In 1927, Dewey mused about the effects of the new technologies that would connect individuals and could enable meaningful communication. In 2013, I wonder if online social networking—and especially among college students—is this century’s bowling league.