Cyber-village or anti-social network? We decide!
Both, because online ‘communities’ can take the form of cyber villages, facilitating the closeness, shared purpose and humanity of scale that characterizes village communities (and that is so often missing in the large, fast-moving urban and suburban non-communities in which so many of us live) but without the parochialism. They can also morph into anti-social networks or emerge with such a purpose in the first place, ‘opening a window on the world while slamming the door on your neighbour’, as Peter Bradley, the founder of the Speakers’ Corner Trust, once put it to me.
Neither, because, too often, these online clusters, large or small, are not ‘communities’ but mere gatherings – temporary, drifting, ultimately un-cohesive in any meaningful sense – that display none of the constancy or meaningful contact that is the essence both of village (or community) life and of friendship itself. But nor are they, necessarily, anti-social – they are more often ‘social’ but sometimes only in the manner of passing interest; sociable might be a better description. Where are your Facebook Friends when you need them? Probably chatting online to somebody else, comes the sceptic’s response.
We should though be exploring any new or recent phenomenon in terms of its potential, rather than its immediate impact. The immediate impact may have been socially exclusive – a technology evangelically embraced by the young, the tech-savvy and the tech-confident (and there is a fair degree of crossover between these three groups) but one that has risked leaving others, especially parents, the old and the tech-wary behind.
The upside of ageing and generational progression dictates, though, that the early adopters won’t have it all their own way forever and that the web may ultimately welcome some of those initially left outside: online shopping offers the house-bound a level of material inclusion that was not previously accessible, consumer and user networks inform this shopping, blogging need not discriminate between youth and elder voice, tweeting allows all of us to comment on the debate, even if it encourages more shouting than listening. Ultimately, the web, and social ‘communities’ in particular, allows more of us, not fewer, to come to the table – and sometimes online activity leads to off-line activity, the virtual progressing to the real: riots, clean-ups and relationships.
But the question is which table (or tables)? A couple of weeks after the annual Battle of Ideas event, at which I first became engaged in this debate, a further discussion at a conference of Citizenship Educators, drawn from across Europe and held in Warsaw, opened my eyes to the greatest shortcoming of our emerging online world. In fact, it is not a shortcoming of the newly resultant networks but of our shaping of them, and intrinsically of our social conservatism, our anti-community tendencies.
In this latter debate, veteran American political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, and UK-based social networking expert, Andy Williamson, found unexpected common ground around. In Williamson’s shrewd phrase, the net’s ‘failure to cross-pollinate’ across either the range of ideas and discussions thrown out into cyber-space or the people behind them. Or as Barber, a master of sound-bites that ring true, put it: we choose our Facebook Friends (or our Linked In contacts, or who we follow on Twitter, or our online dates) not on the basis of how different they are to us, but how similar they are.
Of course, this is the basis on which we have always identified potential friends, dates and (at least, until the emergence of equal opportunities legislation) colleagues but the net, or, rather, the social network, allows us to be utterly precise, utterly conservative, to find our spiritual identical twins across the globe, to feed our narrowest of personal interests and needs: more parochial not less. ‘Why doesn’t Amazon ever suggest I buy books about things I might never have thought of?’ asked Barber, noting that their current practice of offering ‘other books you may be interested in’ may lead to a deepening of his knowledge in a particular field, but does nothing to broaden it, to take it to undiscovered terrains or to explore unchartered ground and new horizons. Facilitating and encouraging this exploration is, surely, the very purpose of education itself. The great teacher continually takes the learner to somewhere new; the poor one ensures that they follow in the footsteps of their parents and peers. If the net is not just our new community but our new teacher (or at least a resource from which we might learn so much), it threatens to be inward looking and unadventurous. Or, at least our current use of it is.
And so a reflection: I plundered with some trepidation into the debates in Warsaw and at the Battle of Ideas – you could write what I know about this new online world on the screen of an iPhone, if the battery held out. But we ought to stop obsessing about the technology; we, the tech-wary, will ‘get it’ eventually. We ought instead to ask what we mean, or could mean, by ‘community’ and what sort of community and communities we want – and want to be part of – in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, on and off-line: closed, socially exclusive, inward looking, comfortable, parochial, anti-social (in short, the worst version of village life) or open, welcoming, diverse, socially imaginative, challenging, brave, pro-social (the qualities displayed by the best communities of both locality and interest).
Social networks have the capacity, a new and wonderful capacity, to deliver the latter; our constraining of them has given us the former. The web didn’t cause the Arab Spring, our riotous Autumn or the subsequent neigbourhood clean-ups; people did – although the net spread the story and helped to speedily awake the copycats, good and bad. Likewise, the web hasn’t slammed the door on our neighbour, we have; the web might just allow us to re-open it. Next time you choose a Facebook Friend, how about reflecting on the advice of one of the architects of this brave new online world. In the words of the late Steve Jobs, think different.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time. The Battle of Ideas 2011 featured a Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design exhibition on online communities at the Royal College of Art, entitled Talking People.
Tony Breslin is Director at Breslin Public Policy Limited, Chair of Human Scale Education and founder of the soon to be launched practitioners’ policy network, Creative Forum.Tagged in: facebook, opinion, social networking, twitter
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