For John Dewey community was the product of democracy, and democracy was not just a form of government. It was a way of interacting with one another and arriving at decisions together. He saw community as an extension in space where participants refer to, react to, and consider the actions and opinions of others, which in turn helps them to direct their own behaviors (Dewey. 1964). Part of the effect of community was to break down barriers that segregate people and to create greater empathy for one another. Dewey was very much a progressive thinker, considering these idealistic views. But at the same time I think he was firmly grounded in pragmatism, and had an understanding of what was actually possible to achieve in community.
For awhile now I have been interested in his ideas related to education. He seemed to suggest that students should be largely involved in directing their own learning and be involved in the creation of knowledge, and not simply be instructed about what is or is not true. And this reminded me of Plato’s Phaedrus, as argued through Socrates, that it is not enough to simply transmit or regurgitate existing information. Rather, inquiry, often through collaborative discourse, is necessary for real learning to occur or to address real world problems. Working in higher education, I am fully supportive of this argument, particularly the idea that community arises through interaction and involvement. While I tend to agree that current social media sites, like Facebook or Twitter, are effective at meeting Dewey’s ideal of being user-generated, I wonder how strong the bonds of community are within such sites. Do they allow for opportunities for intimate connection, or encourage skeptical inquiry? Does “liking” a blog post or a status update count as active participation in a community? How connected is a user with his or her 2,500+ online “friends”?
I tend to think that to create community in social media there needs to be some sort of shared responsibility and investment among the users, which I think Dewey would have agreed with. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (2000) observed that since the 1950s Americans had become increasingly less involved in group and community activities. Political participation decreased, membership in professional associations declined, as did socializing with neighbors. The loss of this reciprocal goodwill, fellowship, community, and socially-constructed knowledge caused depletion in what he termed as social capital. He identified numerous causes for these social trends; television, suburbanization, and internet among others. While I tend to take a lot of what Putnam argued and agree with it, most of his research was conducted prior to the recent tide of social media. In so much as interaction in social media creates discussion and debate where participants are creating “social capital” and are invested in addressing real-world issues, I think it can lead to a sense of community. Something like MeetUp.com, for example seems to harness the power of social media and use it as a tool for building real-world connections.
Too often, however, I feel that sincere discussion and debate does not really occur. In the internet, bad ideas never seem to die. (I’m stepped up on the soapbox now). Rather than Dewey’s ideal of creating empathy for other views, a lot of current media is concerned with validating one’s present beliefs rather than challenging them. How many listeners of Rush Limbaugh tune in to his program for deep philosophical inquiry and analysis of current issues? More likely they tune in to feel like their current opinions are validated. One could probably say the same for just about any TV, internet, or radio pundit. But does that really create community? Perhaps this is reflected in the American political arena today. Individuals with opposing voices become more entrenched in their ideas rather than actively engaging in constructing shared knowledge together or committing to a shared responsibility. It is difficult to recognize where empathy occurs. I think Dewey would consider this a lost opportunity.