March 5, 2007 By Blake Harris
The idea that IT is a force that transforms communities is hardly new. During the last half of the 20th century, Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase "the global village" became so pervasive that its real meaning was almost lost, even before wide-scale adoption of the Internet.
And during the 1990s, there was much discussion about the rise of virtual communities -- a loose description for various social groups interacting via the Internet. Howard Rheingold, for instance, published a book by that title that described his adventures in the online community the WELL, and experiences with a range of computer-mediated communication and social groups. One early, fundamental debate was whether such virtual groups would replace or augment physical interaction.
Today, we don't hear so much discussion about virtual communities. They have become, in effect, a fact of life for many people. Rather, the new Internet phenomena is often described as social networking, fueled by popular Web sites such as MySpace and other interaction and linking venues. Blogs not only link to each other, but often cross-reference one another's content as well.
The first social networking Web site was Classmates.com, created in 1995, according to Wikipedia.com. Company of Friends, the online network of Fast Company magazine, introduced business networking to the Internet. Other sites followed suit, including SixDegrees.com, Epinions.com -- which introduced the circle of trust in 1999 -- followed by European equivalents Dooyoo, ToLuna and Ciao!
Facebook was originally designed to mirror a college community, but expanded its scope to include high-school, job-related and regional networks. Popularity of these sites continued to grow, and by 2005, MySpace was getting more page hits than Google. New social networks are now often focused on niches such as art, golf, tennis, soccer, cars, dog owners and even cosmetic surgery.
All of this has had a significant impact on our very notion of community. Melissa Leong sums up the shift in the National Post: "Decades ago, the word community was associated with a place, a religious group, an ethnic population -- the lakefront community, the Catholic community, the Chinese community. These days, however, the word has become a catch-all to describe any number of people who share a common interest -- no matter how bizarre, brief, frivolous or fringe-like it may be."
Leong suggests that the arbitrary and ubiquitous use of community to describe almost any grouping of people seems to coincide with the breakdown of traditional communities. That's an easy leap to make. It's frequently noted that in large cities, for instance, people are often more closely acquainted with people they've met online -- people they have never met physically -- than their own next door neighbors.
Trying to isolate root causes for what is increasingly perceived as community breakdown in America seems to depend a great deal on perspective. Marcia D. Lowe, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, for example, argues that the demise of the traditional community has been largely caused by the physical separation and dispersion inherent in suburban sprawl.
Robert D. Putnam presented the case in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community, that TV played a significant role in pulling people away from involvement in traditional community organizations -- such as the Lions and Kiwanis, church groups and bowling leagues.
What has been lost, according to Putnam, is social capital -- "the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other." In his analysis, Putnam found that during the past 25 years, attendance at club meetings has fallen 58 percent, family dinners are down 33 percent, and having friends visit has plummeted by 45 percent.
This decrease of group activity has renewed