The process of sharing information and experiences online ultimately makes them the common possession of all who are in our networks. Whether we produce the information or consume it, our viewpoints are modified for better or worse, though perhaps not so categorically. Messages, photos, Likes, links and tags amend meaning; they do what shared experiences do, i.e. they change us. The alteration may be a small thing, a simple amendment. Multiple users may now know something more (perhaps new) about other users from their postings; or they just gain new insight on something previously known. Either way, online social networks enable the development of communities—especially democratic communities. When individuals “enter into the activities of others” as John Dewey explained, when individuals enter into communication with each other, they engage in the “cooperative doings” that democratic arrangements require. Is that what we do on Facebook? Is that what college students do on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest?
Certainly the research evidence is suggesting that college students are indeed changed by social networking. Or, more precisely, that students’ consumption of information on social networking sites like Facebook is just another form of social capital acquisition that has social and academic value. The research suggests that Facebook and other social networking sites provide Dewey’s conditions for judging the worth of communities for democratic aims: how numerous and varied are the interests that are consciously shared? And how full and free are the interactions and relationships with other friends?
Based on these two criteria, it would appear that online social networking is pretty democratic and certainly communal, right? Well, not all communication on Facebook, not all representations on Twitter, and not all image uploads on Pinterest are “cooperative doings” or shared experiences, or even sincere representations of genuine “interest in the activities of others.” Certainly as producers and consumers all communications on social media change us, but not always in a positive way. There’s lots of cruelty communicated on these sites; lots of examples of how networked communication can restrict one user’s autonomy and can undermine the collaborative spirit of the network. There are many cases of college students using these sites as a means to bully and harass. On some campuses, Facebook has become the new “bathroom wall.” Students have uploaded photos of other students on Instagram and asked others in the network to vote on all of the age-old, tired objectifying categories: women’s sexual appeal, men’s gay-ness or “fag factor.” And it’s not just Miley Cyrus fighting the Twitter wars; Twitter “wars” are taking place on all our campuses. Researchers are reporting that among college cyber bullying victims, 25% were harassed on social networking sites. Not surprisingly, women are more likely to be the targets of cyber bullying. And most disheartening given the democratic potential of social networks is that 42% of all college students have witnessed student-on-student cyber bullying. I wonder how many of these students turned an undemocratic blind eye?
Dewey would remind me that all democratic arrangements are imperfect and that the goal of democratic societies is to develop those opportunities that increase or broadened the scope and number of interactions and relationships between individuals so that communality can evolve. More importantly, he would direct me to recall that democratic communities figure out how to “extract the desirable traits of forms of community life which already exists, and employ them to criticize undesirable features and suggest improvement”—straight-up Pragmatism. “Straight-up” means that like everything else on our college campuses, this, too, requires our attention.