Bowling alone, but online together? : virtual communities and American public life

Song, Felicia Wu, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Hunter, James, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Carlson, Bernie, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Corse, Sarah, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

The integration of new communication technologies into the fabric of everyday life has raised important questions about their effects on existing conceptions and practices of community, relationship, and personal identity. How do these technologies mediate and reframe our experience of social interactions and solidarity? What are the cultural and social implications of the structural changes that they introduce? This dissertation critically considers these questions by examining the social and technological phenomenon of online communities and their role in the ongoing debates about the fate of American civil society.

In light of growing concerns over declining levels of trust and civic participation expressed by scholars such as Robert Putnam, many point to online communities as possible catalysts for revitalizing communal life and American civic culture. To many, online communities appear to render obsolete not only the barriers of space and time, but also problems of exclusivity and prejudice. Yet others remain skeptical of the Internet's capacity to produce the types of communities necessary for building social capital. After reviewing and critiquing the dominant perspectives on evaluating the democratic efficacy of online communities, this dissertation suggests an alternative approach that draws from the conceptual distinctions made by Mark E. Warren's political theory of associations.

A content analysis of thirty online communities was conducted to determine their dominant stuctural and institutional features. The findings show that online communities tend to have high ease of exit, are socially constituted and oriented towards exclusive group identity goods. Producing a relatively narrow range of democratic effects, they are conducive to fostering inner-group trust, personal efficacy, and the public representation of difference. They are poor sources of mutual obligation, reciprocity, deliberative skills, and trust and cooperation with those outside the group. Moreover, in taking into consideration the market's institutional role in the development and management of online groups, they appear to illustrate and epitomize the commodification of community and the fate of public life in a consumer culture. Under such institutional conditions, it is difficult to see how online communities can substantively help revitalize American civil society.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
communication technologies, effect on social interactions, virtual community

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-02-18 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:37:52.

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