“Surfing Alone”: The Relationships among Internet Communities, Public Opinion, Anomie, and Civic Participation
Robert Putnam noted in his seminal essay “Bowling Alone” (1995) that the rich associational life that characterized Americans was being lost. He introduced the idea of “social capital”, or the formal and informal relationships among individuals, as correlates of social trust and civic engagement in a society. Robert Putnam neglected to note a more critical threat to social capital and traditional associations than “bowling alone”, however—the relatively new phenomenon of “surfing alone”, whereby individuals link to each other through the Internet. While this has often been hailed as a means of creating communities across spatial boundaries, it limits the face-to-face contact that has been critical to the political power of traditional organizations. As such, it provides an illusion of community that is a weaker counter-force to a dominant class. Further, as an international phenomenon, it has the potential to affect the levels of social capital on a global basis.
This paper attempts to study the effects of “surfing alone” within the “internet community”, using data from the Saguaro Seminar at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This project utilizes forty-one community-based samples from the study, for a total of 26,230 respondents in the United States. My paper concludes that the internet has a profound effect upon public opinion and civic associational life. To the extent that online contact replaces other forms of civic association, it promotes a public that is more isolated, less tolerant, and more susceptible to anomie than the traditional relationships.
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