The Last Agora: Social Networks, Social Planners, and True Community


social network, Facebook, ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg was recently named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” and regardless of whether you agree with the selection (or care!), Michael Knox Beran uses the occasion for some reflection on social networks and the concept of community.

Beran, who is one of my favorite writers on all things agora (see here), begins his commentary with the following quote from the Time piece:

[The] bigger social networks get, the more pressure there is on everybody else to join them…It’s going to get harder and harder to say no to Facebook and to the authentically wonderful things it brings, and the authentically awful things too.

Beran notes that “electronic community has its virtues,” but he laments modern society’s “morbid craving for it.” This craving, Beran argues, “reveals the degree to which actual community has collapsed in much of the West.”

But before you jump on the anti-corporation bandwagon and ridicule Zuckerberg for destroying authentic community, understand that Beran sees this more as a reflection of culture than the cause of its corrosion:

Social planners have gradually eviscerated the agora sanctuaries which once brought people together in face-to-face community: they have replaced the rich artistic culture of the old market square with Le Corbusier–style functionality; they have marginalized its spiritual traditions; they have supplanted its charitable institutions with dehumanizing social bureaucracies; and they have made its schools, the transmitters of its ancient civic culture, ever more morally and culturally vacuous.

In other words, Beran believes that social networks are (unfortunately) the last popular form of community we have. On the whole, we have tried to automate and mechanize virtue by tinkering with the social landscape. (This, of course, is why I had to put the “True” before “Community.”)

Such a reality, Beran argues, mirrors the outcome that Alexis de Tocqueville feared when examining democracy.

As Tocqueville said:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained significant education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any men; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imaging that their whole destiny is in their own two hands.

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries, from him; it throws him back for ever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

I agree with Beran’s overall perspective, but I’m not quite sure I agree with the extent of his criticism when it comes to Facebook.

There is certainly a growing number of folks who hide behind their computers and limit their “face-to-face” interactions to their pets and their video-game buddies. Likewise there are plenty of people in America (non-Facebook users alike) who embody Tocqueville’s characterization.

But from my perspective, it seems that Facebook is one potential (though not holistic) remedy for such an outcome — a remedy for a cultural corrosion that long preceded it. Indeed, from my personal experience, Facebook serves primarily as an enhancer to my face-to-face interactions, keeping me more connected with those I care about and making collaboration more possible in an increasingly globalized world.

But again, Beran’s main concern is not with Facebook and Zuckerberg, but rather with what they illuminate about culture at large. The main question we need to ask, then, is as follows:

What would happen in a world without the intrusive and corrosive social programs that Beran laments? If we really did have a thriving agora in the “face-to-face” manner that Beran glorifies, how would individuals be using  Facebook in the 21st century? Would there be more users or less users? Would use itself be entirely different? Would there be any purpose for Facebook in the first place?

What are your thoughts?

(Photo credit)

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/15192831521988608 Remnant Culture

    Is Facebook the last agora? What do social networks say about social planners? http://bt.io/GSsk #tcot #tlot

  • http://www.rossbemmett.com Ross Emmett

    In network analysis, your discussion is about the tension between “thick” or “strong” ties and “thin” or “weak” ties among people. The traditional social capital literature focuses on strong ties as the foundation for civil society (hence Robert Putnam's lament in Bowling Alone). But social media gurus argue that lots of weak ties can substitute sometimes for strong ties. Read Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, for example. Recently, Malcolm Gladwell and Biz Stone debated the topic across the New Yorker and the Atlantic magazines. The real answer, of course, is both/and. I haven't read Putnam's newest book, but plan to do so over the next month.

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