In this article, published this month in the RSA Journal, I grapple with the (in)ability of online social networks to support and produce real-world social action. I spent a lot of time on the arguments in this article, as it translated so much of my theoretical thinking to a more public audience: how can online social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn contribute to offline social capital? Does the online capital accrued through actions and identity development actually mean anything? How might the diffusion of responsibility, click-activism and social posturing found in online social networks thanks to their perpetuity, their first-person narratives of identity and their articulated friendship trees actually diffuse social action rather than facilitate it?

A variation of this article will be published as part of my forthcoming book, currently titled The Cult of Me.

Feedback here (or on the RSA’s site) welcomed!

In 2000, the political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, a book documenting the deterioration in public participation, social engagement and community involvement in late 20th-century America. He argued that the decrease in membership numbers in key civic organisations meant that civil society in the US was spiralling towards a future of isolation and unrest. The culprits Putnam identified were the typical 20th-century bad guys: urbanisation, a culture of fear and an increase in media consumption. The outcome was a loss of social capital, the glue that holds a working society together and prevents us from destroying ourselves and others.

Mandarins from Washington to Whitehall, who had been wringing their hands over the well-documented decline in political participation, welcomed the book. It provided the evidence they needed to pour public cash into policies aimed at tempting the apathetic masses back into effective social engagement. In reality, they needn’t have bothered. The number of Boy Scouts and due-paying party members may have declined, but social participation is booming. This is true even though people’s use of the internet – which Putnam cited as an enemy of social capital – has increased. In fact, the internet has helped to reintroduce us to one another and has inspired us to get involved with our local communities.

Crucial to this are online social networks, websites that allow people to connect with friends and strangers based on existing relationships or commonalities. The most successful current example is Facebook. It works on the same principles as the very first social network, each person has a home page to customise and the tools to reach out to others. Sites such as Facebook articulate connections by allowing people to see who knows whom, offering suggestions for new contacts based on connections between them and delivering news about people in the network direct to the home page. They keep users in the loop, taking the guesswork out of social interaction and providing a one-click megaphone to a community. With these facilities at their heart, they have naturally emerged as hubs of influence, activism and civic action.

Continue reading on the RSA’s site.