What civic woes? As chronicled in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, Americans over the last generation are increasingly disengaged from their friends as well as government and community organizations. And we’re paying a dear price for this decline in ‘social capital’ beyond some warm and fuzzy sense of the remembrance of community passed. A booming volume of research shows that with weaker social networks come less responsive public institutions, increased crime, worse public health and lower life satisfaction, slower economic growth, and lower educational achievement, to name a few consequences.
In an earlier era where everyone knew their neighbors and were more involved in organizations, information spread more rapidly. The reputation of Greenwich Village’s KFC would have disseminated through bowling leagues and PTAs and Kiwanis clubs once a person saw rats in the customer area. And these social networks of trust and reciprocity thus held civil servants and citizens far more accountable — a nanny loafing on the job would dramatically increase the job that she’d be fired, increasingly making the benefit of an afternoon’s leisure seem scant against a high likelihood that her reputation would become widely known. Making Democracy Work by Robert Putnam showed that in regions of Italy where social networks were vibrant through choral societies or soccer clubs, government performed better and was more responsive.
But what are we to do in a social-capital anemic society? How do we hold idle nannies or corrupt government officials accountable? How do we engage others when these social networks are weak? It appears that the web, through civilian disclosure activists may be making lemonade out of lemons. Maybe this web disclosure is a social adaptation to a changing ecosystem. It also raises questions about when shaming is useful behavior in starting to reassert civic norms, as this biker thinks it is.
– when the issues are visual or arresting (e.g., a Nanny sleeping in park on duty, George Allen saying *macaca*) since interpretation is “clearer” and desire to spread virally to others is higher.
– when context appears not that important (for example, a terrible parking job or this Your Parking S*@ks, a site devoted to terrible parking jobs)
– when issues are not that complex (i.e., it is less clear that web-data on the carbon footprint of various products will be as powerful without persuasive brokers like respected leaders or respected non-profit organizations)
Activism by disclosure hardly represents any sort of panacea but it is a development surely to rise in importance and may offset to a small degree some of the loss from the fact that we are Bowling Alone.
I’d welcome your comments for interesting trends you see in this space.
See also: Don’t Date Him Girl
Platewire (to report bad driving behavior by license plate)
and “Honk if you’re going to report this on the Internet” (Slate, May 2009)