Commentary, Opinion

Bonding and bowling together in the Digital Age

By Narain Batra

Editor’s note: Narain Batra of Hartford is a professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University. He is the author of “The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation” and the forthcoming “India in A New Key.” 

Major U.S. social media network companies — including Apple, Alphabet (Google), Facebook (now Meta), Microsoft and Amazon — have generated massive amounts of wealth, a market capital totaling $9.5 trillion, which is more than the combined GDP of Germany and Japan, and more than six times the GDP of Russia.

They’ve a large presence in our lives, claiming euphemistically that they want to bring us together to form sharing communities.

However, the question is: Can social networking companies create social capital also? Robert Putnam of Harvard evoked Alex de Tocqueville’s 1830 visit to the United States, during which the Frenchman had observed the Americans’ fondness for gregariousness, clubbing together in civic associations, which created civic norms and social trust and helped build social capital. America was good and great.

In “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Putnam lamented that America’s social capital was declining due to people’s diminished engagement in public and civic affairs. The American people, he said, did not care much for voting during elections — an assumption that the 2020 presidential election, with more than 66% voters casting ballots, and the recent fiercely fought elections in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Boston might question.

Union membership has declined; participation in civic and fraternal organization membership has fallen, and so on. More Americans are bowling today, he said, but they are bowling alone. Bowling alone does not create social bonds and build social capital. AARP has 38 million members, for example, but that cannot replace a close-knit local organization, the basis of civic society and the foundation of democracy.

To restore civic engagement and civic trust, Putnam argued, restoring social connectedness should be the nation’s top agenda.

But America today sees community building and social bonding through the Build Back Better framework, in which social media broadband connectivity is an important component. The internet and social networks have created tremendous opportunities for social connectedness, albeit with weak ties.

Larger the group, weaker the ties, especially when members are geographically dispersed. America has become a multicultural society with tremendous diversity. Social bonds cannot be that of a homogeneous New England village of lore.

Some time ago, Malcolm Gladwell argued in The New Yorker (“Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”) that social media cannot bring about a massive fundamental transformation in society, as happened during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which, he said, “happened without email, texting, Facebook, or Twitter. … Activism that challenges the status quo — that attacks deep-rooted problems — is not for the faint of heart.”

Activism requires structured hierarchy, command and control, strong ties, and commitment. These are not the attributes of social media, which is built on loose and casual relations, he argued.

Unfortunately, Gladwell was keeping in mind some old models of political and social revolutions led by Lenin, Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. The age of social media requires a new generation of social thinkers and activists who know how to transform weak ties into strong bonds whenever needed.

Social networking cannot instigate social activism, but it can hasten it by awakening dormant bonds and strengthening weak ties.

Anders Sandberg is a neuroscientist and futurist, a proponent of human enhancement through technology. He’s a distinguished research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Commenting on social networking, he said, “A fluid, global society might be much better off having a lot of weak ties and a few strong ones.”

Sandberg was echoing what an American sociologist, Mark Granovetter of Stanford University, famously called “The Strength of Weak Ties” in a very influential research paper. That ideas could spread through weak ties is a revolutionary idea.

Consider one of the most revolutionary movements of all times: The Protestant Reformation that sooner or later impacted the whole world. The Protestant Reformation spread through weak ties. It began with the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in 1517 and continued for more than a hundred years. It formally ended with the Treaty of Westphalia 1648.

The Protestant Reformation did not have a single command-and-control hierarchical structure that Gladwell talked about as indispensable to a movement. Nor was it based on social capital that Putnam can’t stop talking about.

Which brings us back to the question whether social media-generated weak ties could become strong ties if and when circumstances arose. The wealth, the market capital, which hi-tech social media companies are creating, from which we all benefit any which way, is based upon weak ties. In fact, the wealth that capitalism creates is based on weak ties (of shareholders) albeit supported by strong laws.

The weak ties created by social media networks could become strong ties, as unfortunately happened on Jan. 6, a calamitous event, and not something that Tocqueville or Putnam could have imagined.

And finally, consider this: The Salem witch trials (1692-93) were based upon strong ties, the strong social bonds, and the consequent groupthink generated by the closely-knit Massachusetts Bay community — on which Arthur Miller built his play “The Crucible.”

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