Facebook and Google: Twenty-First Century Institutions for Civic Engagement

Democracy is often said to work best when citizens build networks of social interaction and trust.  Civic engagement informs the inputs into the political process.  So, too, it facilitates the formation of social capital, i.e., interpersonal connections and the norms of trust and reciprocity that arise from them.  Social capital allows groups to overcome collective action problems so that they can “accomplish things together.”  Moreover, civic engagement allows people to see their lives as entwined with others, to “feel [themselves] one of the public,” and “to weigh interests not [their] own.”  In turn, citizens inculcate “habits of cooperation and public-spiritedness.”  Civic engagement reinforced Alexis de Tocqueville’s “self-interest properly understood”—i.e., weighing interests other than one’s own—and encouraged “responsible citizenship.”

As Benjamin Barber explains, mediating institutions “give expression to the idea of citizenship.”  This is especially so when institutions cultivate norms of trust across lines of social division (often referred to as “bridging ties”).  In Amy Gutmann’s view, the “more economically, ethnically, and religiously heterogeneous the membership of an association is, the greater its capacity to cultivate the kind of public discourse and deliberation that is conducive to democratic citizenship.”  According to Neil Netanel, a liberal democratic polity needs citizens to encounter competing ideals so that they can test their commitments and gain empathy for those with whom they disagree.

Alexis de Tocqueville emphasized the importance of townships and civic associations for citizens to acquire the skills and habits of dialogue.  John Dewey found schools uniquely situated to teach children and adults about the social meaning of community.  In his view, schools brought diverse people together in ways that “introduce deeper sympathy and wider understanding.”  For Cynthia Estlund, the workplace stood  as the most important site for the formation of social and political views because it permits informal discourse among people “who are both connected with each other, so that they are inclined to listen, and different from each other, so that they are exposed to diverse ideas and experiences.”  She also emphasized its atmosphere of enforced civility and equality, which allows diverse voices to be heard.

Online intermediaries constitute important twenty-first century mediating institutions.  They extend workplaces, schoolhouses, and community centers to digital spaces.  In this way, they supplement real-space exchanges of information and opinion with virtual ones.  Companies encourage employees to use social network sites to deepen workplace relationships.  Workers, in turn, discuss issues in person and in online postings.  Student organizations meet face-to-face in classrooms and in social network groups.  Neighborhood communities combine offline activities with online ones.  Google’s Blogger hosts blogs designed to facilitate commentary on community events.  In these and other infinitely different ways, users of online intermediaries perform their roles as citizens.

Worth recognizing are the potential democratic goods facilitated by intermediaries.  Online intermediaries continue discussions among diverse groups of workers and students who are inclined to listen to each other.  Because social media brings the personal lives of individuals to the fore, it has the capacity to deepen empathy for different backgrounds.  Of virtual communications amongst workers, Cynthia Estlund notes: Because the workplace would provide face-to-face interactions, “electronic communications can expand and equalize work relationships.”  Social science research shows that social network sites support loose social ties that allow users to maintain networks of relationships.  A 2007 study found that Facebook does indeed cultivate bridging social capital.  Because intermediaries enable groups to combine real-space activities with virtual ones, they impact civic engagement through their architecture and content choices.

Intermediaries also impact democratic practices by providing vast opportunities for civic engagement.  Participatory online forums include collective wiki projects, blogs, video-sharing, social network groups, discussion boards, and more.  Recent studies suggest virtual political activity is expanding with the rise of varied social media technologies.  Such civic engagement may involve people from different backgrounds.  Examples abound of intermediary-enabled political participation.  Recall the mobilization of thousands of mothers to combat the use of dangerous chemicals in baby bottles.  Moreover, online intermediaries play an indispensable role in bringing together minority or marginalized groups in different geographic locations.

In 2000, Robert Putnam questioned whether the Internet could generate norms of trust given its facilitation of anonymous interactions that lacked a wider social context.  Citizenry’s use of evolving technologies has allayed some of Putnam’s concerns.  Intermediaries can facilitate bridging social ties nested in offline relationships and foster meaningful political engagement.  Nonetheless, intermediaries’ services can be used in ways that imperil citizenship, requiring a conception of digital citizenship to tackle them.  Helen Norton and I explore this issue and those covered here in our article Intermediaries and Hate Speech: Fostering Digital Citizenship in the Information Age (forthcoming Boston University Law Review 2011).  I will blog about digital citizenship and how cyber hate imperils it in a future post.

You may also like...