What Politics Has to Do With Social Connection
How social media has transformed social relations, for better and for worse.
No one wants to be on the receiving end of a Twitter hounding. But if that anger enables social connection among the hounds, could it be for the best?
I want to take your attention to two longstanding developments in our society. Viewed separately, they are each banal pieces of received wisdom. But put them side by side, and it becomes clear that they are in utter contradiction. The first development is the rise of political engagement on social media. The second is the social alienation caused by social media.
Let’s look at the first phenomenon. Last week, the general manager of café chain Muffin Break received massive online backlash after she complained to News Corp that young people don’t walk into her stores asking to work for free. And the list of successful hashtag movements – #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #icebucketchallenge spring immediately to mind – is only growing. These are movements constituted by people who would have been unaware of each other’s existence, but for social media.
People are coming together more than ever before, to participate in movements they care deeply about.
There’s certainly power to be gained in manipulating the currents of social media. In a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms provide us with a framework to understand this ‘new power’. Breaking from the old power hierarchies that used to define our world, new power is ‘open, participatory and peer-driven.’
But new power does not always coincide with new power values, like transparency and innovation. Hence, Heimans and Timms categorise actors between Crowds and Cheerleaders (the good guys), and Co-opters and Castles (the bad guys). They present their ideas as a toolkit for progressive activists fighting the social media-literate forces on the other side, such as the Tea Party and the NRA (American conservative political lobbies).[
People are coming together more than ever before, to participate in movements they care deeply about. And yet they are also more disconnected than ever. The 2018 Australian Loneliness Report found that one in four Australians report feeling lonely at least one day a week. The contradiction lies in the fact that the foremost explanation for social disconnection is insufficient political engagement.
This classical account belongs to Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who was propelled to fame by his 1995 article ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.’ Putnam defined ‘social capital’ as ‘features of social organisation such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.’ In other words, it’s the glue that holds society together.
Putnam argued that technology (back then, television) encouraged people to spend their time alone, forgoing ‘social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza’ at the bowling club. Consequently, as individuals turned inward, membership rates in civil society groups like religious institutions, parent teacher associations and volunteering clubs plummeted.
Student life today certainly seems to attest to Putnam’s thesis, characterised by the crushing pressure of coffee-fuelled careerism and social alienation. The pro forma response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Busy.’ Within the UNSW Revue scene, cast and audience numbers have been falling for years. Mainstream politics is faring no better. A dozen retirees sitting in a dingy corner of an RSL club once a month now passes for a party branch meeting.
Student life today certainly seems to attest to Putnam’s thesis, characterised by the crushing pressure of coffee-fuelled careerism and social alienation.
Tying It All Together
Perhaps the nature of civic engagement has changed for the worse. Back in 1995, Putnam observed the rise of mass-membership political organisations, which rely on donations and mailing lists instead of in-person interactions. But he didn’t think much of them, comparing the bonds between their members to those between ‘any two devoted Honda owners’. In his words,
‘They root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another.’
But this characterisation is starkly at odds with Heimans and Timms’ model of ‘new power’, which has participation at its heart. Heimans and Timms envisage a scale of participation that runs from ‘sharing’ to ‘co-owning’. The #MeToo movement began with a Tweet from an American actress asking for victims of sexual harassment to share their stories. #BlackLivesMatter relies heavily on the footage produced by citizen journalists to bring police brutality to light. And as we have seen, this stuff certainly sparks conversations.
It’s worth recalling that the benchmark for Putnam’s conception of civic engagement is not very high to begin with. It’s the off chance of stumbling into a political discussion at a bowling alley or a parent teacher association meeting. Social media makes these interactions easy – so easy, in fact, that we risk trivialising online interaction. We forget how remarkable it is that we can use these platforms to talk politics with people we would never have otherwise met.
For my part, I think a world where students can agonise together about house prices, and collectively abuse the cretin who suggested cutting back on avocado toast, is a better one. Although social media almost certainly makes society lonelier in aggregate, it offers new possibilities for political engagement. So take your place, dear reader, among the happy few who embrace this extraordinary tool to change the world.