Monday, July 19, 2004

A Cross-Talk Crisis?

The experience of blogging has gotten me thinking about what kind of community we bloggers are building. Read the following passage adapted from Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow and see how it feels:

"The kind of community [bloggers] create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. These communities are more fluid and more concerned with the [interests of] of the individual.... The communities they create are seldom frail. People feel cared for. They help one another. They share their ... problems.... But in another sense [bloggers] may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some [blogs] merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.... We can imagine that [bloggers] really substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they do not. "

What was Wuthnow really talking about? Not bloggers, but self-help groups.

I came across this passage from Wuthnow while reading Putnam's Bowling Alone. Putnam discusses self-help groups as one of only four clear exceptions to the increasing civic disengagement of America. (I'll share the other three in a moment.) But, as Wuthnow makes clear, we should be careful not to expect too much engagement to emerge from self-help groups. For example, many self-help groups specifically prohibit responding to other members in the group, which is called "cross-talk."
The parallels between such self-help groups and RSS-armed bloggers seem striking to me. Blogs and news aggregators allow us to express ourselves and tune in to others as we wish, but my preliminary impression is that blogging doesn't generally promote cross-talk.

Another striking parallel between blogging and self-help groups: Blogging is an especially fast-growing part of one of Putnam's other four clear and encouraging movements against the tide of civic disengagement, which are
1. Youth volunteerism
2. Telecommunications and the Internet
3. Grassroots evangelical conservatism
4. Self-help groups
I am thrilled to see #1 on the list above, and honestly scared of #3. As for numbers 2 and 4, I am happy to see any signs of increasing civic engagement, but I am also concerned that we not lose track of cross-talk.
Thankfully, there are other Internet forums besides blogging (such as e-mail lists) that traditionally invite plenty of cross-talk. I have also seen e-bulletin boards with strong community goals that insist on cross-talk -- an honor code to keep lurkers from diluting the communal sense of engagement. I will be curious to see how these cross-talk-rich forums fare in comparison to blogging.
(Note: Wuthnow's quote comes from Sharing the Journey.)

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