The decline of local communities
At the dawn of the new millennium American political scientist, Robert Putnam, proclaimed that public and civic health was in jeopardy! Why?
He observed that the social connections we once made with neighbours, friends and within communities was in serious decline as participation in clubs, societies and other membership organisations continued to fall.
Putnam’s work, Bowling Alone, received acclaim but was published before the proliferation of social media. Since then, the digital revolution has been staggering. In 2015 research by Deloitte estimated that Americans checked their phones eight billion times a day.
The rise of global communities
With some 4.2 billion internet users and just under 4 billion people using social media networks, connections and interactions are facilitated between billions of individuals across the planet, even those in the most remote corners of the world.
Facebook, the largest social media platform, has 2.3 billion monthly users. It launched in 2004, Twitter followed in 2006 and Instagram in 2010. In this time, they have facilitated connections between those who live hundreds and sometimes even thousands of miles apart. And also, to our neighbours and family. Vast and sometimes powerful communities are created as a result.
Anyone who makes themselves accessible does so to a truly global audience. Politicians, Hollywood actors and royalty have social media profiles, and may connect with people they won’t necessarily know but who wish to connect with them regardless.
Even senior religious leaders have found a way to positively use social media to connect with and support individuals on their personal and spiritual journey. If there is any criticism directed at the Church for its use of social media it’s that it has been reactive as opposed to proactive. Nevertheless, the bible app, YouVersion, which launched in 2008, has been installed more than 260 million times since then. Similarly, popular apps exist for the Koran and Torah.
It’s inconceivable that a modern political movement, social organisation or business would operate, or at least with success, without some social media profile. Indeed, approximately 81% of small and medium sized businesses have some form of social media.
Breaking down communication barriers
Prior to the development of social media, telecommunications provided a revolutionary, modern and immediate way to connect with others. Professor of US and International History at the University of Melbourne, Barbara Keys researched the impact the use of tele communications had on civil society in the middle of the last century in “how important phone calls were in fostering a sense of community, intimacy and connection”. It made people feel “emotionally bonded” Professor Keys said.
But what if telephone, or indeed face-to-face, communication proved difficult?
One of the most important technological developments has been the advancement of tools to support individuals who may have otherwise had difficulty staying connected. Companies like MED-EL, a global innovation leader in hearing loss solutions, are driving forward the development of hearing technologies including cochlear implants and supportive listening devices such as connectivity devices, built-in wireless and telecoil features to provide connections in millions of shops and restaurants worldwide.
There are few things more empowering than an individual feeling connected to the environment they live, whether that’s in person or through valuable digital connections.
To be able to participate freely and autonomously in their surroundings or to engage in the world beyond the immediate surroundings is powerful. If we are ever to reconnect with the social capital that Robert Putnam warned was in such jeopardy then embracing technology is surely what will help us achieve that.