The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 25-28
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The Internet and America's Changing Sense of Community
Wayne McIntosh and Paul Harwood
By any measure, the Internet is transforming American society. It is changing the way we do business, shop for products, obtain information, and communicate with each other. According to the Department of Commerce, the number of homes with an Internet connection nearly doubled between 1998 and 2000, to reach better than 41%. Considered slightly differently, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that, by December 2000, 94 million adults had Internet access. This means that, on an average day, more than 59 million Americans are on-line. 1 Previous technological developments (e.g., the postal system, telegraph, telephone, radio, television) have, in different ways, weakened the significance of time and space, diminishing the degree to which people relied upon face-to-face contacts, and making it increasingly possible to maintain social relations, conduct business transactions, and engage in political actions, across long distances. Current developments in information systems, clustered around telecommunications and the Internet, represent a true technological revolution, with far-reaching economic and social implications.
Unlike past technologies, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has not only rendered our "global village" yet smaller (McLuhan 1964), but it has also created a new place—cyberspace, that can be populated by new communities, and that can host extensions of current communities in electronic outposts (e.g., Rheingold 1993; Turkle 1995, Shapiro 1999).
The economic impact of the digital revolution is clear, from record-keeping to order and delivery, from the workplace to the shopping cart. Indeed, over the past decade, the information technology sector has doubled the growth rate of other parts of the economy (despite problems in 2001-02), and high-tech industries have actually driven about one-fourth of all economic growth (according to U.S. Commerce Department estimates). The impact on civic life is more difficult to determine, but scholars have offered a range of arguments. For example, Putnam (1995; 2000) has documented a long-term decline in social capital since about the 1960s. Accordingly, people are increasingly disengaged from civic organizations and community life in general, choosing instead to escape it all by spending more hours watching TV and, more recently, surfing the Web. Turkle (1995, 233) employed ethnographic techniques to study a specific population group and concludes that some people have turned to "neighborhoods in cyberspace" to fill their off-line community void. It is questionable, however, whether one could generalize Turkle's experience at Dred's Bar, the "watering hole on the MUD LambdaMOO," to explain America's sense of community out "There" in all of cyberspace (Fernback 1999). Indeed, such enclaves are no doubt youthful provinces. Kraut, et al. (1998) initially reported that heavy on-line activity was associated with depression and withdrawal from family and community life, even if they ultimately followed up with another study in which they found the opposite to be true (Kraut, et al., 2002).
Wellman, et al., (1999; 2001; 2002) find, in broad-based surveys, that people are using the Internet to supplement their off-line activities; increasingly social capital is bolstered by the quick and easy transfer of information and communications process offered by computer mediated alternatives. Moreover, Uslaner (2000) notes that heavy Internet use has no effect on the level of trust we place in others, and that the digital world provides no sanctuary for those who lack a local supporting network of friends and associates. In fact, the heaviest users are among those with the strongest social network, those most well-integrated into community life.
Our expectations are guided by these previous studies, but we are most interested in social connectedness, the conditions under which people find a "sense of community." Like the researchers noted above, we assume that small groups provide invaluable emotional support to individual group members. Although people join for a variety of reasons, groups offer them an opportunity to share their problems, seek advice or temporary encouragement, and most commonly to reassure them "that they are...