The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action grows

A new Pew survey emphasizes the Internet's importance in civil society.

A survey released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and Life Project shed light on the social side of the Internet. The results offered insight into the differences between the connected and the disconnected, revealing that Internet users are more likely to be active participants, with some 80 percent of Internet users participating in groups, compared with 56 percent of non-Internet users.

These findings confirm the impact of the the Internet on collective action, observed Beth Noveck, NYU law professor and former deputy CTO for open government at the White House. “Internet users are more active participants in groups and are more likely to feel pride and a sense of accomplishment.” Perhaps we are all not, as Robert D. Putnam suggested, relegated to “bowling alone.”

“Technology may not be the corrosive force that Putnam imagined in American life,” wrote Jared Keller in The Atlantic. “Instead, it may provide new lifeblood for civic organizations by making participation cheap and easy, if in a different form. Americans may not want to bowl alone: they just prefer to do it online, from the comfort of their homes.”

On Tuesday, I participated in a panel at the State of the Net Conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss the Pew study’s findings as they relate to civic participation, technology policy, and new media. I was joined by Jerry Berman, founder and chairman of the Center for Democracy and Technology, Andrew Keen (@ajkeen), author and host at, Lee Rainie (@lrainie), director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and Clay Shirky (@cshirky), technology consultant and author. Video of the panel, courtesy of the Congressional Internet Caucus, is embedded below:

“We have historically overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to one another,” said Shirky. He found two elements of the survey surprising, in terms of what they mean for the “death” of two common themes that have surrounded much of the contemporary discussion of Internet and society:

  1. The idea of online vs. off-line, and that there’s a “place” called cyberspace. Shirky cited the statistic that “75 percent of people who report using the Internet did not find those groups using the Internet” for evidence, with respect to the crossover or integration between our virtual and material lives.
  2. Given that society is now extending real world groups to online tools in a widespread way, it dismantles idea of geek culture online.

Keen agreed with Shirky on that count, although not on others, as viewers of the video will discover. Keen highlighted the statistic that 68 percent of Americans say they use the Internet to communicate with members of a group. “No longer is this divide between online and offline,” he said. “The Internet itself is reality — and even that term is slippery.” The Internet itself is the digital revolution, in his words, with the next revolutions to come perhaps predicated upon this digital platform.

Berman, along with other members of the panel, repeatedly cited Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America“. De Tocqueville, writing in 1836, was concerned about the rampant individualism he saw in American society.

Keen voiced his concern that we’re seeing the disappearance of “Tocquevillian democracy” today as a result of two trends feeding off one another: the cult of the social and the cult of the individual. In that context, he said, we’re seeing the fragmentation of the 20th century individual into this “intradividual” who is continually moving between spheres.

Berman observed that what countered that force in the 19th century were the bonds formed by associational life in America, where citizens came together, communicated, formed alliances and solved problems together. De Tocqueville put newspapers at the core of that connection, said Berman, along with churches and community centers. As those older print institutions are replaced by digital platforms, new connection technologies will be given an increasingly important role in supporting the fabric of democracy in 2011.

The challenge of how these connection technologies can be turned to governance, versus campaigning, will become increasingly critical. Many of the social platforms that are in current use give their users substantial ability to personalize what information or conversations they receive. Shirky says that government and technologists have systematically undersigned social spaces where hard choices are addressed. “We have, thanks to James Madison, lots of well designed systems to do that [offline]” he said. “We don’t have as many online. The tendency to rant or opt out prevents the kind of bargaining or horsetrading that’s important.”

Berman, a staunch defender of privacy and electronic freedom, put the findings in the context of how we view the role of the Internet itself in society. People pursue liberty, equality and the openness of Internet not because they are ends of themselves, but because of their potential to sustain and improve democracy, he said. Berman emphasized the use of computers, cellphones, tablets and smartphones as creative communication devices that allow citizens to organize and connect with one another.

“If we want to defend an open Internet, we have to establish that it’s promoting democracy,” he said, not simply a vehicle for content consumption or commerce.

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