THE MAGNIFYING GLASS EFFECT.

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THE MAGNIFYING GLASS EFFECT.

NEGOTIATING INDIVIDUALISM AND COMMUNITY ON THE INTERNET.



by


Sorin Matei



------------------------------------------------





A Dissertation Presented to the

FACULTY OF THE GRADUATE SCHOOL

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNI
A

in Partial Fulfillment of the

Requirements for the Degree

DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY

(COMMUNICATION)


May 2001

ii

Table of contents

Figures

................................
................................
................................
.........................

iv

Introduction: Research Overview

................................
................................
................

1

Chapter I: The Internet between social effects and social shaping

..............................

6

1. Tec
hnological determinism and the “social effects” of the Internet

...........

7

2. Social and cultural forces shaping the Internet

................................
.........

11

3. A t
heoretical and empirical framework for studying the social functions of
the Internet

................................
................................
................................
.....

14

Chapter summary

................................
................................
...........................

20

Chapter II: The Ameri
can socio
-
cultural context in the Internet age
.........................

22

1. Changes in the cultural system

................................
................................
..

23

2. Individualism and social
-
institution
al changes

................................
.........

28

a. Changes in the family structure as a sign of individualism.

..............

30

b. Decline in religious participation as a sig
n of individualism.

............

32

c. Change in political participation as a sign of individualism.

.............

35

Chapter summary

................................
................................
...........................

38

Chapter III: Virtual community as an individualist ideology

................................
....

39

1. “Structure of meaning” as a tool for cultural analysis

.............................

41

2. Searching for meaning through "open communication"

...........................

45

3. Themes and transformations in virtual community ideology

...................

48

a. Virtual community as network society

................................
...............

49

b. Virtual community as rational society

................................
................

55

c.

Virtual community as instrumentalist ideology

................................
..

56

d. The expressive implications of instrumentalist individualism

............

59

4. Virtual

community and the dilemmas of modernity

................................
.

62

Chapter summary

................................
................................
...........................

67

Chapter IV: Hypotheses and research questions

................................
........................

69

Chapter V: Datasets and Measures

................................
................................
............

80

1. Dataset descriptions

................................
................................
..................

81

a. GSS

................................
................................
................................
.....

81

b. CBS Marketwatch Internet Poll

................................
..........................

82

c. Metamorphosis Dataset

................................
................................
.......

84


iii

d. Vir
tual Community Dataset

................................
................................

94

2. Measures and indices

................................
................................
..............

106

Chapter VI: Analysis and results
................................
................................
..............

118

1. Statistical analysis methods and strategies

................................
..............

118

2. Results

................................
................................
................................
.....

121

a. Association between objectiv
e and subjective individualism

..........

121

Low objective individualism


Medium objective individualism High objective
individualism

123

Figure 2. Objective and subjective individualism (GSS)

................................
........

123

b. Individualism and the social promises of the Internet

.....................

125

c. Be
longing to real community as predictor for on
-
line ties

..............

129

d. On
-
line ties as resources for belonging to real community

.............

137

e.

Virtual community ideology and individualism

..............................

142

f. Virtual community ideology and social interaction

.........................

145

Chapter VII: Discus
sion and conclusions

................................
................................

149

References

................................
................................
................................
................

168

Appendix A

................................
................................
................................
..............

190

Appendix
B

................................
................................
................................
..............

195

Virtual Community Survey Instrument

................................
........................

195

Introduction

................................
................................
...........................

195

I
nstructions

................................
................................
............................

196



iv

Figures


Figure 1. Metamorphosis study areas
................................
................................
........

85

Figure 2. Objective and subjective

individualism (GSS)

................................
........

123

Figure 3. Likelihood of making friends on
-
line by residential neighborhood

........

132

Figure 4. Relationship

between on
-
line ties and real community belonging by low
individualism (marital status) in the whole Metamorphosis sample.

...............

141

Figure 5. Relationship between on
-
line ties and real community
belonging by low
individualism (marital status) in the Caucasian / African
-
American
Metamorphosis sub
-
sample.

................................
................................
.............

142



v

Tables


Table 1. Statistical data identified in th
e selection of phone exchanges for
Metamorphosis target communities

................................
................................
...

90

Table 2. Virtual Community dataset final breakdown

................................
..............

96

Ta
ble 3. Virtual Community dataset response rates
................................
................

101

Table 4. Virtual Community on
-
line group member locations

...............................

104

Table 5. Ob
jective individualism characteristics by dataset

................................
...

108

Table 6. Belonging by residential area

................................
................................
....

132

Table 7. Variables predicting
likelihood of making a personal friend on
-
line

.......

133

Table 8. Beta values for “having made friends on
-
line” used as predictor of
belonging

................................
................................
................................
..........

139

Table 9. Logistic regression coefficients for variables predicting number of virtual
neighbors

................................
................................
................................
..........

148



1

Introduction: Research Overview


The American social and cultural environment in which the Internet was born

has put a strong imprint on its culture. Visions of community without proximity
(Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Licklider & Taylor, 1968; Poster, 1997; Rheingold, 1994;
Watson, 1997)

and of an ever
-
changing self
(Turkle, 1995)

ar
e influenced by radical
individualism
(Lasch, 1991; Myers, 2000; Rothman, 1997)

and by the emergence of
a new instrumental
-
expressive American value
-
system (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan,
Swidler and Tipton, 1996). The main rhetorical vision
(Bormann, 1972)

of the
Internet sub
-
culture, though aiming at a more perfect union through technology
(Matei, 1998)
, is often fueled by the very American desire of creating an
individualistic order, where the goal is not co
llective but personal growth
(Fernback,
1997; Jones, 1997; Seabrook, 1997; Tocqueville, 1958)
. Often, as has already
happened in numerous instances on the web, virtual communities are transformed
into "consumption communities"
(Boorstin, 1973; Turow, 1997)
, commonality of
interest being translated into aggregation of eyeballs for advertisers, further
weakening the strength of social bonds (see, for example, the Geocities.com or
DejaNews.com sites).


Yet, the Internet sho
uld be seen neither as a dystopian, atomized space nor as
a utopian fraternity. This study, offers a more nuanced view of the way in which the
interaction between on
-
line and off
-
line social forces, social values and ideological
visions shape the emergenc
e of virtual communities. It starts from the theoretical
position that the Internet is a "middle space"
(Healy, 1997)
, a symbolic and also very
real arena of confrontation between individualistic and socially oriented values and

2

persons.

More specifically, this study suggests that the Internet, although surrounded
by an aura of “open communication” particularly attractive to individualist
personalities and discourses, can be a space for rebuilding community if the people
populating it evi
dence socially oriented behavior developed in their off
-
line social
interactions. These behaviors include, but are not reduced to, political participation,
involvement in real
-
life community or religious organizations, or characteristics as
simple as bein
g married.


The Internet reflects and amplifies the drama of everyday life. It opens up
the opportunity to chat with people on the other side of the planet for a monthly flat
fee, but it also pins one down for hours in front of the monitor in the solitude

of
"consensual hallucinations"
(Gibson, 1985)
. It creates more freedom, but it can also
lessen commitment
(Slouka, 1996)
. It erases signs of social status (such as skin
color or position in social hierarchy), but it wea
kens trust, as the growing concern
about privacy demonstrates. It creates spaces of public expression, but it also
encourages obnoxious or insulting behavior (e.g., "flaming"). It offers the ability to
mobilize people for social action, as in the case of

the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize
winner who conducted her campaign for abolishing land mines from a country home
in Vermont
(Williams, 1999)
. But, it can also multiply the opportunities for
narcissistic behavior, as in the case of Jenni's webc
am

a miniature video camera
that broadcasts to the world the trivia of a young woman's private life (see
http://www.jennicam.com).


A central hypothesis examined in this research is that the current public
discourse promotes the idea that the Internet crea
tes a new social environment, more

3

hospitable to those seeking avenues for self
-
realization. Thus, at least in theory, the
Internet will seem more attractive to individualists. Based on empirical evidence
gathered through national, local and on
-
line comm
unity surveys, study findings
indicate that the ideal of on
-
line social interaction is particularly attractive to those
who are disconnected from the social fabric: people who do not vote, who do not go
to church or who are divorced or single. However, th
ese findings also show that the
Internet is a point of arrival rather than a point of departure for these individualistic
personalities. By this I mean that although people who see on
-
line environments as
ideal social spaces are relatively individualistic
, their desire to recapture on
-
line what
they have lost off
-
line seems to be genuine. What makes their effort to reconnect
successful is their pre
-
existing social capital
(Putnam, 2000)
: involvement with off
-
line social networks and insti
tutions. According to the data, on
-
line social bonds
increase in strength with one’s off
-
line community involvement; the ability of the
Internet to reconnect people to society is directly proportional to their preparedness
to connect face
-
to
-
face. Thus,
the Internet stimulates and amplifies preexisting
social conditions.


Further evidence shows that adherence to virtual community ideology (belief
in the socially beneficial effect of Internet technologies) among people who are
involved in on
-
line groups is

not necessarily conducive to creating lasting, personal
relationships. In sum, this research suggests proposes that the Internet has a
magnifying glass or amplification effect, strengthening the level of belonging to
geographic communities of those who a
re already prepared for a rich social life and
weakening that of the people with frail social ties.


4

* * *


The dissertation is organized into seven chapters. In chapter I I review
relevant literature regarding the debate about the social role of the Inter
net. More
specifically, I summarize the two main perspectives taken by researchers studying
this phenomenon, the early technological deterministic view
(Anderson, Bikson,
Law, & Mitchell, 1995; Barlow, 1994; Braman, 1994; Dyson, 1997; Eric
kson, 1997;
Gates, 1995; Gingrich, 1995a; Harasim, 1993; Hauben, 1995; Hiltz & Turoff, 1978;
Hof, Browder, & Elstrom, 1997; Horn, 1998; Katz, 1997b; Kiesler, Siegel, &
McGuire, 1984; Licklider & Taylor, 1968; Meeks, 1997; Negroponte, 1995;
Rheingold, 1994;

Schuler, 1996; Wiese, 1996)

and the one that has emerged
recently, which proposes the more nunanced view that the Internet is shaped by the
social choices and cultural preferences of the social groups that employ it
(Baym,
1998; Carey, 19
88b; Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Czitrom, 1982; Fernback, 1997;
Fulk, Schmitz, & Steinfield, 1990; Jones, 1997; Mantovani, 1994; Nye, 1997)
. I
argue that the latter social shaping of technology view gives a more valid account of
the social implications

of computer
-
mediated communication technologies, because
it takes a broader historical and sociological perspective.


I also propose in chapter I that the future of the new medium will be the
result of the confrontation between individualistic aspiratio
n of "virtual community”
ideology proponents and the yearning for social connection and community of
ordinary users. I conclude that social interaction on the Internet is contradictory,
entailing both individualistic and socially oriented values and behav
iors.

The conceptual framework developed in chapter I is applied chapters II and

5

III to link on
-
line social and cultural developments to those taking place in American
society, in general. More specifically, chapter II discusses the changes in American
cu
lture that increasingly value self
-
realization and self
-
affirmation, weakening public
involvement. Among the concrete phenomena leading to social disconnection
identified here is the emergence of a new American “representative character”
(
Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1996)

and of an expressive
individualistic culture. Chapter II also reviews several significant changes in the
social
-
structural fabric of the United States, more specifically in its families,
churches and vot
ing process. In chapter III I show how off
-
line social and cultural
changes can be identified in themes propagated by virtual community ideology. This
lays the groundwork for proposing, in chapter IV, a series of concrete sociological
hypotheses to accou
nt for the nature of social bonds in cyberspace and their effect on
real
-
life social relationships. Chapter V presents the measures and indices used in
this study, discussing their reliabilities and utility. Chapter VI reports the main
findings of the st
udy, the implications of which are discussed in chapter VII.


6

Chapter I: The Internet between social effects and social shaping

When Howard Rheingold (1994) published his now famous
Virtual
community,

the Internet was still an arcane medium of mysterious

text
-
based
commands whose enigma was made even deeper by obscure technologies with
cuddly names like "Gopher." What for many seemed to be a forbidding medium
whose mastery required graduate
-
level computer science training was presented to
the world as a w
arm, emotional social space. "The Net" was introduced to the public
as an ideal place for solving many of the problems confronting late 20th century
American society: social alienation, individualism, instrumental mastery of the world
and spiritual povert
y. Drawing on an already rich research literature, which for
several decades had drummed up the virtues of computer mediated communication
(Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Kiesler et al., 1984; Licklider, 1960; Licklider & Taylor,
1968; Sproull & Ki
esler, 1991; Turkle, 1984; Valee, 1982)
, Rheingold announced
the birth of a new nation whose "more perfect union" was enacted in cyberspace:

The political significance of CMC {computer
-
mediated
communication} lies in its capacity to challenge the existing

political
hierarchy's monopoly on powerful communications media, and
perhaps thus revitalize citizen
-
based democracy. The way image
-
rich, sound
-
bite
-
based commercial media have co
-
opted political
discourse among citizens is part of a political problem th
at
communications technologies have posed for democracy for decades.
The way the number of owners or telecommunication channels is
narrowing to a tiny elite, while the reach and power of the media they
own expand, is a converging threat to citizens. Whic
h scenario seems
more conducive to democracy, which to totalitarian rule: a world in
which a few people control communications technology that can be
used to manipulate the beliefs of billions, or a world in which every
citizen can broadcast to every other

citizen? (Rheingold, 1994, p. 14)



Rheingold's pean to technologically
-
enhanced social and political life was

7

heard loud and clear in many corners of American society. Deft entrepreneurs have
spun the new idea into many shapes and forms as new devices f
or capturing eyeballs.
For example, Geocities, an early free homepage program, which allowed people to
post their photo albums, college papers, opinions about favorite actors and other
trivia of everyday life on the World Wide Web, embraced the "homestead
ing"
metaphor for attracting new members. Users of this Web
-
based personal publishing
system were given the option to "settle" in "neighborhoods" populated by people
interested in similar issues. Thus, science
-
fiction aficionados were invited to set up
t
heir wares in Area51, bon viveurs and gourmet yuppies were welcomed in Napa
Valley, sports fanatics in Coliseum, etc.
1

A whole cottage industry of virtual
community consultants and authors
(Hagel & Armstrong, 1997; Hof et al., 1997)
,
inclu
ding Rheingold himself (see http://www.rheingold.com), emerged overnight
inviting businesses, small and big, to use this new wonderful tool for capturing and
retaining an increasingly commerce savvy
-
public.

1. Technological determinism and the “social eff
ects” of the Internet


The exponential growth of Internet access in the years that followed the
publication of
Virtual community

transformed several means of communication,
previously reserved for the corporate and academic elites, into mass consumption



1

Vicinity was defined through the URL were the page was located. For
example, all area 51 members had their pages located at
http://www.geocities.com/area51
, a four
-
digit number at the end designating their
specific location.


8

go
ods. Email and listservs, newsgroups or chat rooms became as prevalent as many
mass consumption electronic goods. This seemed to mark for some adherents to the
idea of virtual community the advent of a new type of many
-
to
-
many personal media
and energize
d the already bubbling literary, academic and non
-
fiction field
concerning the social effects of the Internet.


The idea of a new social covenant, mediated by computers, was widely
propagated through mass media by a number of high profile journalists, en
thusiasts
and cyber
-
boosters
(Barlow, 1994; Dyson, 1997; Gates, 1995; Gingrich, 1995a;
Katz, 1997a; Meeks, 1997; Mitchell, 1995; Rushkof, 1994; Schuler, 1996; Toffler &
Toffler, 1995)

followed by a good number of friendly academics and thi
nk
-
tank
researchers
(Anderson et al., 1995; Chang, Kannan, & Whinston, 1999; Erickson,
1997; Harasim, 1993; Lacy, 1996; Poster, 1997; Watson, 1997)
. Virtual community
as a new social form was increasingly analyzed and presented as a super
ior type of
human association. The Internet and its component technologies (e
-
mail,
newsgroups, chat facilities, on
-
demand media, homepages) were seen as eminently
democratic tools of communication because their relatively low price, compared to
the costs

of traditional media publishing, could enlarge freedom of speech and
equality of access to public debates
(Schuler, 1996)
. Moreover, the capacity to
participate anonymously in on
-
line conversations was seen as an opportunity for
encourag
ing more authentic dialogue between people who otherwise feel constrained
by their social, racial or gender background
(Poster, 1997; Turkle, 1995)
. In essence,
the new medium was presented as more germane to an open communication
environ
ment, where access and authenticity of feeling is maximized.


9

The “openness” argument consisted of several inter
-
related propositions
inspired by technological determinism, i.e. the assumption that the technical
characteristics of the medium dictate the s
tructure of the social interactions
facilitated by it. In their substance, these propositions advanced ideas such as:

1.
The non
-
hierarchical structure of computer networks has a positive impact on the
nature of the social hierarchies themselves
(Anderson et al., 1995; Hiltz, 1984;
Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Kiesler et al., 1984; Schuler, 1996)
. The ability of users to
access their peers through a diversity of channels, their simultaneous ability to
produce and consume information, and the fact t
hat information is equally
accessible from any point on the network all translate into net social benefits
(Turoff, 1973)
. Individuals gain a sense of empowerment; they can communicate
across national, social or racial barriers; they have

more access to information and
thus will be motivated to participate in social and political affairs
(Meeks, 1997;
Rheingold, 1994; Schuler, 1996)
.

2.
Flat hierarchies of communication and interaction eliminate the middlemen in
social, pol
itical and cultural life, enlarging social freedom and equality at the
same time
(Berman & Weitzer, 1997; Braman, 1994; Doctor, 1991; Gingrich,
1995a; Lacy, 1996; Meeks, 1997; Schuler, 1996; Toffler & Toffler, 1995)
.

3.
The ability to selec
t between real
-
time (synchronous) and time delayed
(asynchronous) modes of communication creates the conditions for careful
deliberation before engaging in social interaction
(Hiltz & Turoff, 1978)
.

4.
Freed from the social cues of non
-
verb
al communication, which model face
-
to
-
face
interaction, people are more likely to express their authentic emotions and

10

concerns
(Hauben, 1995; Kiesler & Sproull, 1992)
. Or, taking advantage of the
fact that identity in computer
-
mediated c
ommunication environments can be
hidden or manipulated, social actors can explore and express unknown facets of
their personalities
(Myers, 1987; Turkle, 1995)
. In the process, emotional
involvement can be deepened, expressive abilities a
nd personal freedom enlarged,
and social life conducted in a space unrestricted by conventions or prejudice
(Licklider & Taylor, 1968; Negroponte, 1995; Rheingold, 1994; Rushkof, 1994;
Schuler, 1996; Wiese, 1996)
.


These visions did not go

without scrutiny. Soon a number of academic and
non
-
academic critics started to question them. To the claim of ease of access were
brought counter
-
claims of a gapping digital divide
(Barbrook & Cameron, 1995;
Brook & Boal, 1995; Castells
, 1996; Downey & McGuigan, 1999; McConnaughey,
Lader, Chin, & Everette, 1998)
. Other critics pointed to the fact that identity
switching can weaken social responsibility
(Seabrook, 1997; Slouka, 1995)
. Finding
that those who spend more
than five hours a week on
-
line report spending less time
with friends and family, Nie and Erbring (2000) concluded that the Internet leads to
social atomization. They announced that the Internet replicates the social isolation
effects of television and of

the automobile
(Markoff, 2000; Putnam, 1995)
. Kraut,
Lundmark, Patterson, Kielser, Mukopadhyay and Scherlis (1998) similarly infer
from self
-
reported psychological data that those who spend more time on
-
line
become lonelier and more depr
essed.


11


2. Social and cultural forces shaping the Internet


Although a useful corrective factor, some of these critiques
(Kraut et al.,
1998; Nie & Erbring, 2000)

presented the negative social effects of the Internet in no
less direct or

powerful terms than those of the position they scrutinized. Assuming
an equally technologically deterministic view, they are different from their
opponents only in terms of the value they attach to the medium, which is negative,
not positive
(Kraut et al., 1998; Nie & Erbring, 2000)
. An alternative to this
Manichean fight in the mirror is the position taken by researchers inspired by a
broader sociological perspective. They propose that changes in the web of social and
technological con
nections come from the dynamics of general social and cultural
forces
(Baym, 1998; Fernback & Thompson, 1995; Jones, 1997)
. Their social
-
influence vision offers a much more refined explanatory framework for the role of
the Internet in med
iating social interaction. Refusing the legitimacy of the claim that
the Internet is a medium that impacts (positively or negatively) society from outside,
they view it as a social creation of various factors: social, cultural and technological
(Baym, 1998; Carey, 1988b; Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Czitrom, 1982;
Fernback, 1997; Fulk et al., 1990; Jones, 1997; Mantovani, 1994; Nye, 1997)
. This
scholarship, identified with the more general field of “social shaping of technology”
(Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987; Dutton, 1996; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1985;
Winner, 1977; Zuboff, 1997)
, can be synthesized in the proposition that
communication technologies are the product of social choices that predate them. It
proposes that the
Internet, like any other media, is rooted in the North American

12

social and cultural history and that virtual community is linked to powerful socio
-
cultural forces, outside the domain of technology, per se
(Baym, 1998; Jones, 1997;
Matei, 19
98)
.


The connection between cultural visions and communication technologies
can be tracked to the earliest days of the American republic. Such claims as the
Internet, with its hypertextual, non
-
linear content structure, is a portent of the post
-
modern e
ra
(Turkle, 1984)

ignore the fact that the technical characteristics of the
medium might be just a new discursive skin over a very old skeleton of thought. A
number of researchers suggest that the cultural visions animating today's discou
rse of
social change through communication technology is part and parcel of an old
American mythos of extending democracy and empowering individuals through
technology
(Boorstin, 1978; Carey, 1988b; Czitrom, 1982; Matei, 1998; Nye, 1997;
St
urken, Thomas, & Ball
-
Rokeach, forthcoming)
. As early as the mid 1800s
factories, railroads and telegraph wires were seen as the engines of the democratic
future
(Trachtenberg & Foner, 1982)
. This discourse originates, according to Care
y
(1988) in the pre
-
colonial European utopian project of a new trans
-
Atlantic
beginning, where the wilderness of America was married to the latest human
achievements in arts and sciences. To describe this paradoxical vision, Carey uses
the "machine in the

garden" metaphor
(Marx, 1964)
:

Americans subsequently came to define their "nation's future" in
terms of a pastoral idiom inherited from the European utopians.
Mechanical technology was welcomed here, but it was to undergo a
characteriol
ogical change when received into the Garden of America.
Machinery was to be implanted into and humanized by an idealized
landscape. The grime, desolation, poverty, injustice, and class
struggle typical of the European city were not to be reproduced here.


13

America's redemption from European history, its uniqueness, was to
be through unblemished nature, which would allow us to have the
factory without the factory system, machines without a mechanized
society (Carey, 1988, p. 118).



A first phase of America
n technological utopianism, which invested its hopes
in railroads and steam technology, quickly lost its appeal with the onset of the
Industrial Revolution and its associated effects (urban crowding, environmental
pollution or social unrest). Yet, very so
on the dream was revived through
enthusiastic embrace of electrical technologies and the mythos of the "electronic
revolution" was born
(Carey, 1988b)
. Czitrom (1982) documents that quite early
popular media tried to present the telegraph

as a direct agent of social and political
meliorism, as in this late 19th century American Telegraph Magazine article: "nearly
all our vast and widespread populations {will be} bound together, not merely by
political institutions but by a Telegraph and Li
ghtning
-
like affinity of intelligence
and sympathy, that renders us empathically 'ONE PEOPLE' everywhere" (p. 10).

A few decades later, radio was also portrayed as a unifying social force
(Frost, 1922; Lappin, 1995)

that would spread "mu
tual understanding to all sections
of the country, unifying our thoughts, ideals, and purposes, making us a strong and
well
-
knit people"
(Nye, 1997)
. In just a decade it was the turn of television to be
cast in similar terms, the RCA exec
utive David Sarnoff declaring that with television
will come "a new philosophy, a new sense of freedom, and greatest of all, perhaps, a
finer and broader understanding between all peoples of the world"
(Nye, 1997)
.
Symptomatically, in all

these instances the telegraph, radio and television were
portrayed as autonomous forces, as technologies without history, able to reshape, on

14

their own terms, the patterns of American life, just as today this is supposedly done
by the Internet
(Nye, 1997)
.


The critical
-
historical perspective helps communication scholars to take into
account the fact that computer technologies are embedded in powerful socio
-
cultural
environments that precede them. It suggests that the Internet is enmesh
ed in the
same value and social structures characterizing other modern, electronic media
(Baym, 1998; Beniger, 1987; Carey, 1988a; Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Doheny
-
Farina, 1996; Fernback & Thompson, 1995, Fischer, 1992 #509; Fulk et al.
, 1990;
Mantovani, 1994; Matei, 1998; Rothman, 1997; Wellman et al., 1996)
. Also, it
requires that the "mythos of the electronic revolution" should be investigated as a
socially shaping vision itself, and not to be used as a supposedly neutral research
p
rogram.

3. A theoretical and empirical framework for studying the social functions of the
Internet


Increasingly, communication scholars dissatisfied with the ideological
poverty of early theorizing on the "social effects" of Internet technologies, have

tried
to offer more dynamic scenarios about the role of computer
-
mediated
communication in society
(Ball
-
Rokeach, Gibbs, Jung, Kim, & Qiu, 2000b; Baym,
1998; Beniger, 1987; Fernback & Thompson, 1995; Mantovani, 1994; Wellman et
al., 1996)
. They have come to the conclusion that computer
-
mediated
communication does not automatically create a more democratic or more open
communication environment. Computer networks can strengthen human
connections when it transports strong communal values,
but it can also weaken them,

15

when the values transacted are individualistic
(Jones, 1997)
. Beniger (1987)
proposes the view that computer
-
mediated communication is a method of
"personalizing" modern communication in order to make it more
palatable to a
public desensitized to the mass appeal of classical broadcasting and print media.


Jones (1997) believes that under certain conditions on
-
line groups might be
nothing more than an extension of users' private lives, a hypothesis he supports

with
the finding that those who frequent USENET newsgroups feel that the group and the
messages belong to them, not them to the group
(McLaughlin, Osborne, & Ellison,
1997)
. Inspired by Tocqueville (1958), Riesman (1965) and Sennett (197
7), Jones
also proposes the view that the Internet has become the new necessary frontier for
maintaining the process of social mobility and cultural fragmentation built into the
logic of mature industrial
-
capitalist societies. These societies have destroy
ed the
aristocratic "vast enclosures"
(Tocqueville, 1958)

of traditional society, in which
individuals are kept apart by law and custom. In doing so, they have eased the
"burden of respectability," of behaving in an ascribed way
(Sennett, 1977)
. People
have started to feel exempt from history and they have demanded that the
opportunity for reinventing oneself should become a principle of life
(Jones, 1997;
Riesman, 1965)
. Inspired by a powerful ideology
of linear progress, modern
societies demand constant change from their members. In personal terms, this
translates into replacing ethical life
-
ideals with consumption lifestyles. As soon as
the "basic physical plant of the society is felt to be built"
(Riesman, 1965, p. 46)
, the
progress ideal is turned toward personality, which becomes the main outcome of
"consumption"
(Jones, 1997)
.


16

In Jones' (1997) opinion the Internet is perceived as one of the possible
mechanisms o
f producing non
-
ascribed, modern personalities. On
-
line users’
purportedly “fluid” identities reflect the assumption that the new medium is
hospitable to those who reject the right of reference groups to define who their
members are
(Allpo
rt, 1951; Mead, 1934)
. According to Negroponte (1995) or
Turkle (1995) computer environments are uniquely prepared for a new type of self
-
definition through self
-
expression.

Internet or virtual community ideology has at its core a "communicating
society"

ideal, which is also a hallmark of modern society. Communication, stripped
of social and power markers, is believed to have the ability to reconcile "the inner
voice, to which we are told to be true {...} and the other voices that both enable us to
live
in the world and provide a mechanism by which we understand our social
relations" (Jones, 1997, p. 24). On
-
line we have the opportunity to express this
authentic self and to connect to others more than in other social spaces, because no
social stigma is p
ut on self revelation in this relatively anonymous environment. But
since all it takes to be a “community” member is changing a mask, or changing the
style of self
-
expression, “communities” themselves become fluid and disjointed,
almost presocial. Web co
mmunities remind us, as a virtual community proponent
affirms without remarking the irony of the metaphor, of primitive foraging
communities
(Komito, 1998)
.

Yet, as the author of the
Unbearable lightness of being

reminds us
(Kundera,
1999)
, this "lightness" in defining community and the self could have tragic
consequences. Participation and self become fleeting realities; community and

17

personality grate against each other: "On one side is social convention, the
community
, the force that binds us together as social beings, and on the other is
individualism, the dictum that we should just be our 'selves' (provided we can
discover what that is)" (Jones, 1997, p. 27).


Fernback and Thompson (1995) take a similar critical pos
ition toward the
popular view that virtual community is a new frontier for the self and community.
Their main point is that the Internet, as it continues the trend toward individuation
and privatism specific to other, modern media, redefines the meaning o
f
"community" itself: "The extension of community into cyberspace is a natural
outgrowth of the shift from an emphasis on the public to the private in the United
States"
(Fernback & Thompson, 1995)
. They concur with Jones' observation tha
t
communities are now private social choices, rather than ascribed realities. What is
defining our communities now are private needs and individual goals, despite their
traditional definition in terms of "social bond." According to Fernback and
Thompson (
1995), many of the perceived advantages of virtual community can be
seen as disadvantages for real community: appearances do matter, conversation
should not be reduced to instrumental exchange, some ideas are more useful than
others. A computer network ca
nnot enhance democracy because "it promotes
communities that are just as narrowly defined as current public factions defined by
identity {...} Public discourse ends when identities become the last unyielding basis
for argumentation {...}" (Fernback and Tho
mpson, 1995).


Fernback (1997), in another context, also observes that on
-
line social groups
are not entirely devoid of community spirit. Under certain conditions, they can be a

18

step toward re
-
connection of those who feel isolated from the larger society.

Although the social space they create will be short of the "virtual community" ideal,
it will not be entirely a
-
social. Even individualistic values, such as freedom and
openness can be construed socially, if used for reviving public discourse and
preser
ving public goods, such as freedom of speech or the right to privacy
(Fernback,
1997)
.


With the maturing of computer
-
mediated communication as a field of study,
researchers have documented the strength and similarity of on
-
line friendship
s with
off
-
line personal relationships
(Parks & Floyd, 1996)
. Some of the early “cybertown
boosters” have come to a more mature understanding of the interaction between the
medium and the social structure. Prominent advocates of the idea

of virtual
community have increasingly embraced more balanced views
(Barlow, 1995;
Rheingold, 1998)
. For example, Rheingold (1998) now argues that the technical
advantages of the medium can be maximized only in social contexts, including

geographic communities that take full advantage of the social commitments of their
users.

A new series of sociological surveys and social
-
psychological studies seem to
support this view. They suggest that Internet connectors are increasingly using the
medium to maintain and reinforce their existing, off
-
line social network
(Rainie &
Kohut, 2000)
. An early social effects of the Internet study, conducted in 1995,
concluded that most experienced Internet users maintain stronger connection
s with
their friends and families, are more likely to be members of community
organizations and to get involved in community affairs
(Katz & Aspden, 1997)
.

19

Other researchers have shown that depressed and lonely people off
-
line remain
depr
essed and lonely on
-
line
(Cody et al., 1997; Joe, 1997)
. A study conducted in a
Toronto neighborhood intensely connected to the Internet found that Internet
-
access
households are more likely to establish both strong and weak social ties i
n the
neighborhood
(Hampton & Wellman, 2000)
. More importantly, the same research
concluded that connected residents know three times as many local residents, talk
with twice as many, and are more likely to invite their neighbors to their

homes than
their non
-
Internet connected neighbors
(Hampton & Wellman, 2000)
.

These findings should come as no surprise, since studies of “old media,” like
the telephone, have revealed the localizing effect of telecommunications. A
signif
icant number of studies
(Fischer, 1992; Pool, 1977; Pool, 1983)

conclude that
telephone diffusion in the United States did not end up making the distant more
familiar, as expected, but in strengthening local social ties.


Thus, the socia
l "effects" of Internet technologies should not be seen as a
pure media
-
problem. Computer
-
mediated communication and communicators
should be researched as part of everyday social life
(Ball
-
Rokeach et al., 2000a; Ball
-
Rokeach et al., 2000b
)
. The same kind of conflicts and tensions found in non
-
networked groups will be found on
-
line, too
(Baym, 1998)
. Visions about, and
value
-
orientations toward, on
-
line and off
-
line spaces are, in fact, similar because the
people inhabit
ing them are, in the end, the same. The Internet and its social
implications are embedded in the larger social and cultural set of problems
confronting contemporary American society.


The theoretical corollary of this proposition is that the social “effec
ts” of the

20

Internet should be placed in the framework of people’s social structural connections,
including local and physical circumstances. This supposes studying the forces that
contribute to social differentiation and social integration
(Lievrouw, 2000)
, or as
proposed by Jones (1997), including the socio
-
cultural factors that generate
expectations about new media in the research agenda.


This study aims to produce a model that will satisfy these imperatives as
much as it is practically

feasible. It will look at the social structural factors that seem
to facilitate adoption of the Internet as a social interaction tool; it will compare on
-
line social connections to off
-
line social ties and it will analyze their interaction;
finally, it w
ill assess the role of ideological discourse about the social promises of the
Internet in enhancing or detracting from on
-
line social participation.

Chapter summary

This chapter has reviewed two competing views on the role of new media in
reshaping America
n and modern society. Initially, I identified a vision deeply
anchored in history, which sees technology as a determinant factor of social change.
This was contrasted to the approach that emphasizes the role of social and cultural
factors in shaping the
adoption and incorporation of communication technologies in
the lives of individuals, families and communities. The latter was adopted as the
research framework of this study, after being reinforced by theoretical insights
gleaned from Fernback (1997), Jo
nes (1997) and Nye (1997) and by empirical
findings reported by Hampton and Wellman (2000), Katz and Aspden (1997) and by
Rainie and Kohut (2000). They all converge to a research strategy that emphasizes
the role of the social structural position of Inter
net connectors in specific social

21

environments: families, friendship networks or neighborhoods. Equally important,
cultural models of behavior, values and ideals will also be studied as contributing
factors to the social shaping of technology.

The solid a
nchoring of this study in social reality requires a clear
understanding of the social and cultural forces that can actively shape technology.
Chapter II, following here, sketches the American social and cultural structures that
serve as a backdrop for the

Internet age. A major thrust of this discussion will be the
emergence of an individualistic personality. Chapter III, will then show how
individualistic values and visions inform the main themes of “virtual community”
discourse.



22

Chapter II: The Americ
an socio
-
cultural context in the Internet age


This chapter summarizes the relevant sociological literature discussing the
emergence of a new cultural individualism in America and its effects on several
basic social institutions (family, church) or politic
al processes (voting). This is a
period in American history when the amount of civic and social involvement is at an
all time low
(Putnam, 2000)
, which many scholars
(Bellah et al., 1996; Giddens,
1991; Myers, 2000; Rothma
n, 1997; Wuthnow, 1998a; Yankelovich, 1981)

associate
with the rise of a new type of radical individualism. The themes of this new
individualism include an emphasis on the role of “open communication” in social
interaction
(Bellah et al.,

1996)
, self
-
realization
(Yankelovich, 1981)
, and
exploration of individual creativity or self
-
reflexivity
(Giddens, 1991)
. A logical
consequence of the new individualism is a lowered involvement in social affairs.
The
new American individualist will be interested in “alternative” social institutions,
including “virtual communities.”

By advancing these arguments I will attempt to demonstrate that the
popularity of the Internet as a social interaction tool comes at a time

of social crisis.
The discussion in this chapter will focus on changes in the American cultural outlook
and in several basic social institutions. Chapter III draws the connection between
these developments and the discourse about the social promises of
the Internet.

This chapter also has an operational utility. It sets the guidelines for
measuring individualism and for translating into operational terms several of the
hypotheses that will be used in the empirical part of this study. Specifically, as wi
ll
be shown below, single or divorced marital status, non
-
voting, and disengagement

23

from religious institutions will be considered to be “objective” (although not
absolute) indicators of a trend toward individualism in the United States.


I begin by revi
ewing the literature on individualist transformations in
American cultural values. Then, I will summarize the evidence supporting the view
that there have been important changes in the institutions that keep people socially
anchored: family, political and

religious organizations
(Bellah et al., 1996; Glenn,
1987; Myers, 2000; Popenoe, 1988; Popenoe, 1993; Putnam, 2000; Roof, 1993; Roof
& McKinney, 1987; Wuthnow, 1994; Yankelovich, 1981)
.

1. Changes in the cultural system


The general tr
end toward radical forms of individualism is not new. It was
predicted a long time ago by Alexis de Tocqueville (1958). Although finding many
ways in which American individualism was harnessed for the benefit of the new
transatlantic nation, de Tocquevil
le warned about its extreme manifestations and
about the coming of a time when Americans will find themselves tragically separated
from one another:

Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his
children and his private frie
nds constitute to him the whole of mankind. As
for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but does not see them;
he touches them, but he does not feel them, he exists in himself and for
himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him,

he may be said at any
rate to have lost his country (Tocqueville, 1958, p. 336).



This prophecy seems to have become true as important sections of the
American public has embraced life
-
ideals centered on self
-
exploration and self
-
realization, abandoning
social involvement. According to Yankelovich (1981),
America is in the midst of a long
-
term cultural revolution, whose breadth and depth

24

are unprecedented. This revolution marks a reversal in the previous Protestant ethic
values, putting in place of self
-
denial and commitment to various communities
(family, church, neighbors) a refusal to deny oneself anything "not out of bottomless
appetite, but on the strange moral principle that 'I have a duty to myself' "
(Yankelovich, 1981, p. 36). The primary tenet

of the new (radical) individualism is
that "one's most basic obligation is to oneself" (Glenn, 1987, p. S111). This belief,
when taken to its most extreme implications, "undermines allegiance to social groups
and social institutions of all kinds as well
as allegiance to God and such abstractions
as society and the state" (Glenn, 1987, p. S111).


The two forms of individualism (old and new) share the same purpose of self
-
improvement. Yet, in the past this meant improving oneself in tangible, visible way
s
"associated with worldly or familial success ... all based on an ethic of self
-
denial"
(Yankelovich, 1981, p. 51). The object of the new individualism is the self itself.
According to Yankelovich, the slogan of the new individualism is: "I am my own
s
uccess story and my own work of art" (p. 51), which makes every individual a sui
generis artist. "Life is self
-
expression. It is creativity. It is adventure. It is mystery.
It is sacred" (Yankelovich, 1981, p. 39). During the 1980s about 80% of the a
dult
American population was searching in one form or another for meaning in life
through self
-
expression, of which 17% did so in a continuous and intense manner
(Yankelovich, 1981).


The new individualist changes his or her stand on issues and toward peop
le
according to a situational judgment of the environment (Yankelovich, 1981), which
weakens commitment to groups, institutions or ethical positions. This puts a great

25

burden on the individualist personality, who often finds itself in the position of
sayi
ng “I know you can’t have everything in life, but I am not sure what to give up
and what to hang on to” (Yankelovich, 1981).

The self and its “needs” (translated by Yankelovich as desires) become ultimate
realities. Satisfying them requires a continuous e
xercise of self
-
expression or “self
-
actualization.” The values of this outlook are borrowed from a variety of sources, the
most prominent of which is Maslowian psychology (Yankelovich, 1981). Its main
tenets are that individuals who are preoccupied with l
ower
-
order needs (food, shelter,
economic security) have little energy left for pursuing higher
-
order needs of the
spirit. Satisfying the two types of needs is the goal of human accomplishment.
However, the higher
-
order needs are to be satisfied in a man
ner in which the self, not
the group in which one lives, benefits the most. Thus, regarding the self as a sacred
object, being self
-
assertive, not holding anything back should be the main
imperatives of an accomplished individual. More importantly, the d
evelopment of
the self takes place independent of culture, it grows from its own potentialities.
Creativity and “making your own rules” are central for the successful Maslowian
individual. One fitful description of this type of personality is: “You are t
he sum
total of your choices” (Yankelovich, 1981, p. 47).


Bellah et al., (1996) describe the new individualism in terms of the language
used by those who profess it. The authors of
Habits of the heart

identify four
different “languages of individualism”
in the United States: biblical, republican
(civic), expressive, and instrumental. The last two "languages" belong to the new
individualistic personalities, the expressive one being the most important. Their

26

main themes talk about "a life rich in experien
ce, open to all kinds of people,
luxuriating in the sensual as well as the intellectual, above all a life of strong feeling"
(Bellah et al., 1996, p. 34). Rooted in the mythology of the autonomous self, first
promoted by Walt Whitman in the last decades o
f the 19th century, expressive
individualism is seen by Bellah et al. as having been successful in converting the
American ideal of self
-
sufficiency into a project "to cultivate and express the self and
explore its vast social and cosmic identities" (1986
, p. 35). The new individualists
see themselves removed from the world of material possessions and self
-
realization
through social commitment. Money, work, and social status are not central to the
authentic self, which is seen as a composite product of l
ived experiences and
expression of feelings (Bellah et al., 1996).

The instrumental variant of the individualism proposed by Bellah promotes a
type of personality that relies on the belief that "neutral communication" is central to
social life. Instrument
alist individualism relies on an egalitarian assumption
combined with a cost
-
benefit analysis: all human relationships are the same and they
should be seen as assets and liabilities. Individualists of this kind have no set values,
no given “truths of life
.” Anything in their lives may change according to cost or
gain. However, this type of social orientation requires reliable information. An
instrumental individualist can make good decisions only if he or she receives enough
information through “open com
munication.” Communicating information in an
unbiased and neutral way becomes a core social value.


For self
-
centered selves even the most intimate feelings, which might commit
one socially, are transformed into interpersonal, utilitarian exchanges. Thus,

love,

27

for example "means the full exchange of feelings between authentic selves, not
enduring commitment resting on binding obligation" (Bellah et al., 1996, p. 102).
Bellah et al. thus conclude that the new individualists believe in a self that is free

of
absolute or 'rigid' moral obligations. Individualists, thus, alter their behavior to adapt
to others and to various social roles. They "can play all of them as a game, keeping
particular social identities at arm's length, yet never changing {their} o
wn 'basic
identity,' because that identity depends only on discovering and pursuing its own
personal wants and impulses" (Bellah et al., 1996, p. 77). Bellah et al. note,
however, that by inducing fluid identities, neutral (open) communication has
parado
xical consequences. In the process, the self loses its internal coherence. It
becomes plastic, taking the shape of its environment. Moreover, it exists only as
long as it communicates in a non
-
committal manner. It is rooted in no particular
process or
value that could be considered "essential" or primordial, other than the
superficial network of communication. For example, presenting the changes in the
nature of love relationships brought about by the advent of the new individualism,
Bellah et al. not
e that "in a world of independent individuals who have no necessary
obligations to one another, and whose needs may or may not mesh, the central virtue
of love

indeed the virtue that sometimes replaces the idea of love

is
communication" (Bellah, 1996, p.
101). Social interaction becomes an alignment of
opinion, which is not identical with an alignment of values. Since the new
individualists do not believe in the idea of fixed values, their social behavior is a
form of strategic pinball game with others'
and one’s own signals, the essence of the
self being the final score of the game (see Bellah, p. 97
-
102).


28

This new type of individualism, which relies on a superficial game of social
exchange for discovering its nature, creates the premises for other
-
direc
ted social
interaction
(Riesman, 1965)
. Individualists have in the end to pay more attention to
their environment, than community
-
oriented people do. This is a phenomenon also
observed by de Tocqueville (1958), who noticed that in extrem
e egalitarian and
individualistic nations the greatest truth seems to go with the greatest number
because people who have renounced higher sources of moral or social authority end
up relying more and more on the authority of their peers. The new individua
lism is
similarly based on attunement to other's people emotions, moods and signals.

2. Individualism and social
-
institutional changes


Despite good descriptions of the new individualism, like the one proposed by
Bellah et al. above, we know relatively l
ittle about its origins. Some identify its
beginnings in the rise of the service economy and in proliferation of higher education
(Bell, 1996; Lasch, 1991)
, which have created a new class organized around non
-
manual occupations that raise

the expectation and pay the bill for new types of
leisure and social excellence
(Brooks, 2000)
. Other scholars identify these changes
in the process of modernization and rationalization, which creates the premises for a
new “post
-
materia
list” order of values
(Inglehart, 1997)
. Conservative scholars find
the origin of the new individualism in secularization and relativism
(Bloom, 1988;
Donohue, 1990; Kristol, 1995)
. Bellah et al. (1996) propose more nua
nced views,
where economic and social transformations are combined with changes in the
American "habits of the heart." Their perspective embraces a longer historical
approach, and is interested in the relationship between the public and the private

29

sides o
f the self, an approach crystallized in the concept of "lifestyle:"

{A}s social status and social class came to depend more and more on
a national occupational system and less and less on local
communities, a degree of freedom became possible in private li
fe that
would not have been conceivable in the small town or even for older
urban elites. By the 1920s, a concern for lifestyle expressiveness was
clearly evident in the more affluent sectors of American society,
though public opinion remained ambivalent
(Bellah et al., 1996, p.
73).



Other critics identify specific economic and social pressures contributing to
the emergence of the new individualism such as: the women’s entry in the workforce
(Cherlin, 1996)
, the “reengineering” and “netw
orking” of the classical business
corporation
(Sennett, 1998)
, weakening of the social safety net. They seem to have
enfeebled the social institutions that keep people's collective commitments focused
and alive
(Putnam, 20
00; Sennett, 1998)
.

A vivid controversy also surrounds the significance of the transformation in
the modern American value system. For example, Inglehart (2000) disagrees with
the idea that the new constellation of values necessarily leads to social
di
sengagement. While agreeing that there is a cultural revolution at work
(Inglehart,
1977)
, and that self
-
expression and individualism are two of its central themes,
Inglehart (2000) believes that these social phenomena have changed the na
ture of
sociability in late modern societies, rather than leading to its degradation. He
believes that the new values, which he calls “post
-
materialist,” are directed to
satisfying superior human needs, made possible by the post
-
war prosperity
(Inglehart, 1997)
. Freed from concerns of sheer survival and relieved by their
companion anxieties, people are now able to explore new ways of being together

30

without the pressures of traditional institutions: organized religion, nuclear families,
as
cribed role systems
(Inglehart, 2000)
. The values of post
-
materialist society
emphasize not necessarily selfish interests but
other kinds

of social concerns. Thus,
post
-
materialist values are not a step away from socially
-
oriented behavi
or, but a
new path to socially
-
conscious behavior.

However, this interpretation seems to rely to a large extent on Maslowian
premises, especially in its emphasis on the “higher
-
order” needs served by post
-
materialist values. This thought
-
paradigm can le
ad, in the end, to socially
-
isolating,
self
-
seeking behavior, as described by Yankelovich (1981) in his discussion of
Maslowism. Thus, the post
-
materialist interpretation cannot entirely refute the trade
-
offs entailed in the most recent value changes in A
merican and Western society.

Whatever the causes and the larger significance of the new individualism, its
effects are powerful and pervasive. In the next three subsections I examine three of
these.

a. Changes in the family structure as a sign of individ
ualism.

The General Social Survey (GSS) report on family reveals that in 1998 single
households with no children represented 32% of all households, the largest single
marital status group in the nation
(Smith, 1999)
. This group has known
one of the
fastest rates of growth rate in the last 25 years, doubling its size. In contrast, married
households with children, the single largest group in 1972, with 45% of households,
now represent only one quarter of all American households
(Smith, 1999)
.
According to Smith (1999) there are four possible causes of the change in the family
structure of the nation. First, Americans marry later in life; during the last four

31

decades the median age at first marriage increased from 23 to 27

years for men and
from 20 to 25 years for women. Second, the divorce rate has doubled in the same
period, from 10 to 20 divorces per 1000 women a year. In 1998, 34% of all married
adults have divorced at least once, compared to 17% in 1972. Third, alth
ough most
divorcees under 50 eventually remarry, the time between marriages has increased
(Cherlin, 1996)
. Fourth, both the delay in age at first marriage and in remarriage is
facilitated by an increase in cohabitation
(Bu
mpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991)
.
According to the GSS family report:

{C}ohabitators represented only 1.1% of couples in 1960 and 7.0% in
1997. The cohabitation rate is still fairly low overall because most
cohabitations are short term, typically leading
to either a marriage or
a break
-
up within a year… But cohabitation has become the norm for
both men and women both as their first form of union and after
divorces. {F}or women born in 1933
-
1942 only 7% first lived with
someone in a cohabitation rather tha
n in a marriage, but for women
born in 1963
-
1974, 64% starting off cohabiting rather than marrying.
The trend for men is similar. Among the currently divorced 16% are
cohabiting and of those who have remarried 50% report cohabiting
with their new spouse
before their remarriage (Smith, 1998).



The causes of these family pattern changes are multiple, including not only
cultural but also economic and social reasons. As American society has become
more complex and the economic structure more flexible, the

family has become less
and less a necessary economic unit of support
(Cherlin, 1992; Myers, 2000)
.
However, Jacques (1998) makes a more direct connection between the revolution in
family life and the emergence of a new social and cultura
l outlook, which he calls
"post
-
modern.” These cultural changes include an emphasis on expressive
individualism. The mating game and the family dynamic emphasize nowadays:
"being responsive/sensitive to others, practicing open and free communication

32

leadi
ng to cooperative, involved and friendship relationships which emphasize the
expression of direct pleasure"
(Jacques, 1998)
. This has increased the diversity of
criteria for mate selection and for defining what a successful marriage is.
In families
where sensitivity and "communication" have become paramount values, the reasons
for breaking off a marriage have multiplied and the probability of its occurrence
increased
(Myers, 2000)
. Also, child welfare and family integrit
y have become
secondary priorities. This is illustrated by the fact that 82% of Americans agreed in
1985 that "parents who don't get along should not stay together because there are
children in the family," compared to the 51% who agreed with this stateme
nt in 1951
(Myers, 2000)
.


Being single has also become a normatively positive marital status. At the
end of the 50s, 80% of Americans thought that being single was an "unnatural state
for a man or for a woman," but by the end of the 70
s (only one generation later),
almost the same proportion thought the opposite (Yankelovich, 1981, p. 58). The
fact that personal growth and self
-
realization take precedence over social realization
in and through a family is also illustrated by the fact t
hat two
-
thirds of Americans
agree with the statements that "parents should be free to live their own lives even if it
means spending less time with their children" and that parents have the right to live
well now "even if it means leaving less to the child
ren" (Yankelovich, 1981, p. 74).

b. Decline in religious participation as a sign of individualism.

Another social structural manifestation of the new individualism is the
decline of participation in faith communities. Above and beyond their theologic
al
role, churches, temples and synagogues are the backbone of civic and social

33

involvement in America. According to Putnam "nearly half of all associational
memberships in America are church related, half of all philanthropy is religious in
character, and

half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context" (Putnam, 2000,
p. 66).

Religious communities are for many people a bridge between the narrow
circle of private life and the social environment. Churches are incubators for social
and civic skills.

Their members learn about civic norms, community interests and
civic recruitment. Giving speeches, running meetings, managing disagreement and
administrative responsibilities
-

the mainstays of any type of social involvement, are
all skills available to

those involved with faith communities (Putnam, 2000). The
connection between civic participation and religious membership is also proved by
the fact that those who go to church are also more likely to vote, to do jury service,
to participate in community

projects, to talk to their neighbors and to give to charity
(Lazerwitz, 1962; Wuthnow & Hodgkinson, 1990)
.


Although there is a long standing debate about the issue (Putnam, 2000),
there are visible signs that participation in religious o
rganizations is on the decline.
Over the past 30 years, church membership in America has declined by at least 10%
and the category of those who declare having "no religion" has increased from 2% in
1967 to 11% in 1990 (Putnam, 2000, p. 70). Also, raw sur
vey data indicate that over
the last quarter century church attendance has declined by 10
-
12% (Putnam, 2000, p.
71), although these figures might be underestimates, church attendance being usually
over
-
reported in surveys
(Presser & Stinson
, 1998)
. Time diaries completed in 1965,
1975, 1985, and 1995 seem to indicate that Americans spent in 1995 about 1/3 less

34

time on religious affairs than they did in 1965 (Putnam, 2000). Based on this
evidence, Putnam (2000) draws the conclusion that "o
ver the last three to four
decades Americans have become about 10% less likely to claim church membership,
while our actual attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by
roughly 25 to 50%" (p. 72), a pattern very similar to that for dise
ngagement from
other civic organizations.


The explanations for this trend of disconnection from religious communities,
and by implication from social affairs, vary. Some see it as being part of the general
process of secularization of Western society
(Berger, 1967)
, although many
researchers claim that American society is an exception from this trend
(Hadden,
1987; Lechner, 1991)
. Other scholars link the process more directly to the cultural
revolution of the last three
decades
(Roof, 1983; Roof, Carroll, & Roozen, 1995;
Roof & McKinney, 1987; Wuthnow, 1994; Wuthnow, 1998a)
. The younger
generations, by adopting a new individualistic social ethos, have also embraced a
type of religiosity that is personal,

seeking meaning in one's individual insights. The
new believer emphasizes direct contact with spiritual forces and in certain New Age
variants it explicitly rejects what is perceived to be the mainstream religion's rigid
system of faith
(
Bloch, 1998)
. Synthesizing her core beliefs, a New Age practitioner
put it in these words "Believe absolutely everything that you hear, while
simultaneously believing absolutely nothing. You know, allow yourself to create
your own belief system"
(Bloch, 1998)
.

Belief is a question of individualized insights. Ritual and spiritual techniques
are freely mixed and matched according to immediate goals. People seek refuge in a

35

"highly individualized religious psychology without the benefits
of strong supportive
attachments to believing communities. A major impetus in this direction in the post
-
1960s was the thrust toward greater personal fulfillment and quest for the ideal self
... In this climate of expressive individualism, religion tends

to become ‘privatized,’
or more anchored in the personal realms" (Roof & McKinney, 1987, p. 6).

Putnam adds that although privatized religion may be morally compelling for
some and psychically fulfilling for others, it embodies less social capital. Roo
f
(1983) indicates that even for those who remain religiously inclined "privatized
religion knows little of communal support and exists by and large independent of
institutionalized religious forms; it may provide meaning to the believer and personal
orien
tation, but it is not a shared faith, and thus not likely to inspire strong group
involvement... 'Believers' perhaps, but 'belongers' not" (p. 132.)

c. Change in political participation as a sign of individualism.

The shift toward a new species of self
-
centered individualism in America has
also affected people's involvement in secular affairs. Participation in the political
process is not just about exercising a right, it is also a sign that the individual cares
enough about his or her social and polit
ical surroundings to try to impact it. One of
the simplest but telling indicators of political involvement is voting (Putnam, 2000).
Although not a complete measure of political viability of a nation, voting in a mature
democracy is the most indicative s
ign of the health of civic involvement. "Not to
vote is to withdraw from the political community" and "declining electoral
participation is merely the most visible symptom of a broader disengagement from
community life" (Putnam, 2000, p. 35). More import
antly, just like religious

36

attendance, voting is a good predictor for getting involved in social affairs, in
general. Controlling for demographic characteristics, voters are: "more likely to be
interested in politics, to give to charity, to volunteer, to
serve on juries, to attend
community school board meetings, to participate in public demonstrations, and to
cooperate with their fellow citizens on community affairs" (Putnam, 2000, p. 35).


Taking as a measure of electoral dynamic the turn
-
out rate for
presidential
elections, Putnam shows that during the last three decades electoral participation has
declined by 20
-
25%. Only 49% of Americans turned out to vote for the 1996
presidential elections, the lowest number in the twentieth century, compared to t
he
62% of eligible Americans who cast their vote in the 1960 presidential elections.
Turnout decline in off
-
year and local elections is down by the same amount, if not
even more (Putnam, 2000).


Putnam also adds that although this figure is significant
by itself, it might be
an undervaluation of real voting decline. The downturn coincides with a period of
time when two of the most salient obstacles in the American electoral process, the
"Jim Crow" (racial) laws that have disenfranchised many people in t
he South,
especially blacks, and the process of voter registration were abolished or relaxed.
The civil rights movement of the 60s allowed millions of Americans to vote for the
first time. Yet, about the same time the net proportion of Americans using th
eir right
to vote has started to decline.


Who are these non
-
voters? Socio
-
demographic analysis indicates that the
decline is due not to changes in voting patterns of certain individuals or social groups
but due to the effect of replacing the more social
ly conscious World War II

37

generation with less civically involved Baby Boom and Generation X generations
(Putnam, 2000). The new demographic cohorts are more likely to opt out of the
traditional party system and put less trust in the government or other s
ocial
institutions that they would do the right thing
(Lipset, 1994; Sifry, 2000)
. More
importantly, however, the new (non)
-
voters seem to believe that individuals are
much better prepared to deal with the social problems of their time.
The trend seems
to be toward “individualized volunteering.” “Americans are starting to define civic
engagement in very personal terms: What can I do for one other person, or one other
family” (Newlin Careny, 1998, p. 106). Lipset (1994) observes that the
decline in
voting patterns “is for the same reason that we lead the Western world in crime and
incarceration rates, as well as other indicators of deviant behavior. Americans are
less inclined to conform or to obey the law than most Western peoples are.
We are
more individualistic self
-
oriented and less communal and communitarian
-
minded”
(p. 23).
2

What seems to have replaced community spirit and political participation
seems to be the belief in the power of free
-
markets as tools for aggregating
individual

social choices into collective action
(Gingrich, 1995b; Gingrich, Armey,



2

Schwartz (1995) also notes that American individu
alism has become
significantly different from that found in Western European nations. In his
comparative studies of value priorities across the Atlantic he found that Americans
are less committed to social equality and harmony, valuing more conservative i
deals
of hierarchy
(Schwartz & Ros, 1995)
. By implication, this can lead to withdrawal
from the political process if this is perceived to insufficiently benefit the individual.


38

Gillespie, & Schellhas, 1994)
, which will probably add to the problems just
described, rather than solve them.


One can talk, then, not as much about a decline in po
litical participation, but
about a change in its nature and goals
(Newlin Careny, 1998)
. Politics and civic
involvement have become forms of social involvement that start and end with the
individual. This is different from previous forms

of involvement, where
participation started with individuals and communities and ended with collective
goods or social goals.

Chapter summary


In this chapter I tried to show that the trend toward a new form of
individualism in the American cultural outlo
ok may weaken the social ties holding
together some of its basic institutions. The new individualism is probably
responsible for disconnecting people from their basic social anchors. Its adepts are
less likely to stay married or to value married life. T
hey are less likely to be
interested in political affairs or to vote. They are also less likely to participate in
religious institutions that require public and community commitments.

These characteristics allow measuring individualism in objective term
s,
individualists being more likely to be single or divorced, not to vote and not to attend
church. This methodology of measuring individualism will be fully discussed in the
“objective and subjective measures” section of the methods chapter (V) and will
be
frequently used in the empirical analysis part of the study. The cultural anatomy of
individualism described in this chapter opens the discussion about the reflection of
the new individualism in virtual community discourse that follows in chapter III.


39

Chapter III: Virtual community as an individualist ideology


The emergence of a "virtual community" movement in the United States and
its oscillation between collective commitment and renewed individualism mentioned
in chapter I
(Fernback &

Thompson, 1995; Jones, 1997; Seabrook, 1997)
, takes
place in the middle of the massive decline in civic, political, and religious
participation in America discussed in chapter II.


Virtual communities are presented in the public discourse as forms of
"in
tentional communities"
(Rheingold, 1997; Smith, 1992)
, where participation is
voluntary and where values celebrate individual experience and self
-
expression
(Healy, 1997; Poster, 1997)
. The rhetorical themes dominating th
is discourse
emphasize "open" communication, instrumental social interaction, and a "network"
social ideal
(Barlow, 1996; Rheingold, 1994; Schuler, 1996)
, ideas that are also
central to a radical individualist world
-
view
(B
ellah et al., 1996; Myers, 2000; Roof,
1993)
. As a consequence, this chapter and the whole dissertation, argue that “virtual
community” is a sub
-
species of the radical individualist discourse. The
individualistic component of virtual community discourse

is not just a passive
element; it is actively involved in shaping the social visions inspired by such
rhetoric.

This chapter will pull together these ideas into a concrete theoretical
-
causal
mechanism, linking macro and micro
-
levels of analysis. The di
scussion is organized
into four sections. The first one will articulate the concept of “structure of meaning,”
which explains why and how virtual community discourse takes ideological
connotations. A second section reveals the general anatomy of “virtual

community”

40

as a macro
-
social structure of meaning. It focuses on the belief nourished by virtual
community ideologues that decentralized (“open”) information technologies, such as
the Internet, create non
-
hierarchical power structures. “Open communicati
on” is
found to be an ambiguous term, used simultaneously as a social and technological
vision, creating the discursive premise for a technological deterministic social ideal.

In the third section of this chapter, I analyze virtual community discourse in

greater detail, revealing how its central concepts (“open communication,” “network
society,” and the Internet user seen as rational actor) connect to the logic of radical
individualism. During the discussion I use Howard Rheingold’s
Virtual community

(19
94) and Douglas Schuler
New community networks

(1996) as exemplars of
virtual community ideological discourse. The two works are chosen because they
had a significant impact, shaping public discourse about the social promises of the
Internet.

This third s
ection is at times descriptive not for lack of a guiding idea

the
argument that virtual community ideology is individualistic will always be present in
the background

but to show concretely how virtual community macro
-
social
individualistic connotations ar
e transformed into micro
-
social assumptions about
human motivations. This detailed discussion of virtual community ideology also
lays out specific guidelines for building empirical measures of “virtual community”
ideological ideals. The “virtual communit
y” ideology index used in the empirical
analyses of this study is mainly derived from the argument made in this section.


In the fourth and last section I present the practical implication of the linkage
between virtual community ideology and individualism
. I conclude by showing that

41

if virtual community rhetoric relies on individualistic resources, one should expect
that searching for self
-
fulfillment on
-
line can contribute to a process of social
atomization, as much as to one of community building. Comp
uter networks perform
a social role similar to that of other electronic mass media (radio, television). Just
like them, they can enlarge the scope of human interaction and individual agency,
creating the conditions for alternative social groups. Computer
s can contribute,
moreover, to the "great transformation" of Western society from group based
traditional (Gemeinschaft) communities