Are Virtual Communities Harmful to Civil Society?

By Howard Rheingold

Can virtual communities help revitalize civil society or are online debates nothing more than distracting simulations of authentic discourse?

Civil society, a web of informal relationships that exist independently of government institutions or business organizations, is the social adhesive necessary to hold divergent communities of interest together into democratic societies.

Can virtual communities help revitalize civil society or are online debates nothing more than distracting simulations of authentic discourse? Enthusiasts like myself point at examples of many-to-many communication that appear to leverage power in the real world of politics. But how certain can we be, sitting at our desks, tapping on our keyboards, about the reality and limits of the Net's political effectiveness? Would you bet your liberty on it?

If citizens lose our freedom to communicate without fear of state censorship, then the Net's potential power to facilitate "electronic democracy" will stand revealed as a fatal illusion. Because the rights of citizens to communicate online are under direct political attack, Net activists are broadcasting action alerts, directing citizens' attention to the implications of proposed legislation, furnishing contact information for key legislators on crucial votes.

However, even if freedom of expression was not under attack, it's healthy to ask ourselves whether the kind of discourse facilitated by computer bulletin board systems will bring together or further fragment the competing constituencies of the American republic.

The civil society that Alexis de Tocqueville noted two hundred years ago in "Democracy in America" as the hallmark of the American experiment - the active involvement of citizens in voluntary associations for "the public good" - appears to be deteriorating.

Is the Net really an effective answer to the mass hypnosis of the mass media era? Talking at each other online seems to be at least marginally better than sitting stupified in front of the tube, but we need to know how far, exactly, all that talk can carry us. Will worldwide Usenet discussions, up-to-the-minute legislative news listervers and WWW pages, e-mail chain-letter petitions add to civic life, or remove people from it?

The best critique of the democratic potential of virtual communities I've found so far is "Computer-Mediated Communication and the American Collectivity:The Dimensions of Community Within Cyberspace," by Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson, a paper presented to the 1995 meeting of the International Communication Association This paper inspired me to sharpen my own critical perceptions regarding virtual communities. With permission of the authors an abridged version is available, courtesy of Brainstorms: Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure?

Fernback and Thompson cite past outbreaks of technological utopianism to question the claim that online communications can strengthen civil society:"Citizenship via cyberspace has not proven to be the panacea for the problems of democratic representation within American society; although communities of interest have been formed and strengthened...and have demonstrated a sense of solidarity, they have nevertheless contributed to the fragmented cultural and political landscape of the United States..."

The authors cite several arguments against believing in the democratizing power of virtual communities: the disjunction with geographically based neighborhoods can create phony communities, the cost of the technology and knowledge of how to use computers will always exclude much of society, virtual communities are helping make direct face to face conversation less common, among other arguments. Their conclusions are bleak: "... it seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by [computer mediated communication] will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation."

I believe the conclusion of this paper is wrong. I think there is time to prove the democratic potential of the medium by using it properly. Often, that means turning off the computer and visiting a friend, writing a letter, attending a meeting, braving the uncertainties of the offline world. When we are called to action through the virtual community, we need to keep in mind how much depends on whether we simply "feel involved" or whether we take the steps to actually participate.

Last modifiedSeptember 4, 1995.
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