A couple of hundred years ago the Western world witnessed profound transformations as the forces of the industrial revolution coalesced to radically alter the social, economic, cultural and political landscape. A scramble of intellectual and artistic activity followed as the first “moderns” attempted to understand the implications of living in this brave new world of machines and technology.
If there was a mood or tone that captured the various responses, it would most probably have been one of ambivalence. Although new techniques of mechanised production, alongside new political idea(l)s and a general loosening of tradition, meant that modernity was seen as “the take-off point for civilisation”, many also felt that modernity had a darker underbelly. As the great 19th century sociologist Max Weber put it, the “rosy blush” of the Enlightenment soon began to be perceived as “irretrievably fading”.
In many ways, this “fading” was concentrated on the impact of modern industrial society on human affairs. In particular, there was a deep concern about what industrialisation, technology, bureaucratisation and rationalisation meant for community ties and social solidarity. A quick sociological snapshot will remind us of this. For instance, Weber worried about the impacts of rationalisation on face-to-face ethical relationships, Durkheim spoke of “anomie” as a potentiality of the “disappearance of the segmentary type of society” and Toennies lamented the erosion of community as commercial relationships took hold under capitalist modernity. So in early sociological circles at least, modernity was not only reconfiguring social relationships, it was potentially ripping them apart.
Fast-forward to the present and it is apparent that these anxieties have never been quelled, and if anything, the question of community appears more important than ever. This is particularly evident in the context of postmodern theorising which has attempted to understand our current cultural condition, and in doing so, has put questions of communal fragmentation and fracturing - and in some cases complete erosion - firmly back under the sociological radar. Whatever you think about the much maligned term “postmodernism” there is no doubting that it raises important questions about the nature of “being together” in contemporary times.
There is a host of theory and research out there which suggests that individualism has begun to eat into our sense of community. As social theorist Robert Putnam claims, people in advanced industrial nations like Australia are increasingly “Bowling Alone” - a metaphor for the West’s declining civic, political and religious participation.
The “pursuit of loneliness”, as Philip Slater put it, is also linked to the notion that we have become a “home-based society” too busy playing our playstations or watching DVDs to care or participate in our own neighbourhood or local community. Although there is no doubting that widespread individualism and declining informal public space is a central feature of our contemporary world, I wonder if there is something going on under our noses that we are missing …
Call me an optimist, but I would argue that pronouncements regarding the “death of the social” (Baudrillard) are premature. While it might be true that old measures of private and public community are in decline I would like to explore the possibility that the “information revolution” has provided new forms of “being together” in the contemporary world. If people are “hanging out” at home rather than in pubs or cafes maybe they are online, finding cosy little worlds within their computer screens.
As part of tracking the state of community in contemporary life, social thinkers should begin to supplement their interest in the “offline” world of proximal face-to-face relationships with the “online” world of the Internet.
Increasingly our daily lives are interpenetrated by the Internet. We know that the Internet is a handy tool to pay our phone bill, email a friend, to find out the tennis scores, or maybe to do a spot of online shopping. Most of us - if not all of us - have been affected by what is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing technologies in history. In 2001, global Internet usage was estimated to be over 500 million, up from 16 million in 1996 (Castells; Goggin) while at the end of 2000, 50 per cent of all adults in Australia accessed the Internet (ABS, 2000). At the beginning of 2005, there were 5.98 million Australian subscribers to the Internet (ABS, 2005). The pertinent sociological question is then: what role does the Internet play in providing community to its millions of users?
I would like to make some tentative contributions to this question by looking at weblogs or “blogs” as a case study for how the Internet might work to foster new ways of doing community in late postmodernity.
For the uninitiated, a blog - now hold your breath - refers to a website which contains a series of frequently updated, reverse chronologically ordered posts on a common web page. Blogs are a relatively new digital space where anyone with access to a personal computer and a connection to the Internet can have their thoughts and opinions published.
Blogs range from what Mark Lawson (BBC news, 2005) called high-tech diaries, to celebrity blogs, through to more sophisticated academic and political blogs. Although there is a diversity of content, styles and genres, the form is relatively consistent. As Evan Williams, the co-creator of the blogging program Blogger remarked, blogs are united by three things, “frequency, brevity and personality”. While this might sound all a little wrapped up in the modern “cult of the self”, most blogging applications have features whereby you can comment on other peoples’ blogs, add and be added to friends’ lists and join distinctive blogging subcultures.