6.14. Online Communities

When it comes to political or civic engagement, there’s an important role for online communities.

Using the internet to build communities has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

In the ‘90s, when the internet was invented, some people thought it would make our communities radically more egalitarian and democratic.

Instead…we got YouTube comments.

We shouldn’t be surprised that all the hatred, hostility, and discrimination in our offline communities have found their way online too.

But we also shouldn’t hold it against our technologies that they failed to achieve the unrealistic hopes we pinned on them in their early days.

In fact, there’s lots of space out there, lots of opportunities to use technologies to facilitate community building.

Social media played a huge role in the uprisings of the Arab Spring a few years back.

It’s being used right now to coordinate political resistance to Donald Trump’s policies.

It’s being used to connect people all over the world, who couldn’t possibly be connected otherwise.

The internet isn’t some newfangled mystery anymore. By now, we know its capabilities. We know how it can be helpful and how it can be harmful.

But a lot of commentators still treat it as an appendage, as this thing that’s trying to replace all offline activity.

That’s just not the right way to think about it.

Yes, there are some people who text too much. But most studies show that socializing online doesn’t detract from socializing offline. In fact, the more you socialize online, the more likely you’re socializing a lot offline.

It isn’t a zero-sum thing. Online socializing and offline socializing don’t exist in different dimensions. They’re both part of our overall repertoire of socializing with each other.

When it comes to political or civic engagement, there is a role for online communities.

The internet helps with some things, but not with others. Social media helped with organizing and publicizing protests during the Arab Spring—but there’s a lot more to a revolution than that. Founding new, democratic institutions isn’t something that can be done primarily online.

Some people argue that activism online gives people a false sense of doing something—that “liking” something in the comfort of their own home means they won’t get out there in the streets when the time comes.

But again, those people are framing this in a misleading, zero-sum way.

“Liking” something online is a public, symbolic gesture of support, not unlike a bumper sticker or a yard sign.

Nobody would try to build a whole social movement only around bumper stickers and yard signs.

Nobody accuses people who have bumper stickers or yard signs of “slacktivism.”

Online activities are a useful complement to offline activities. And we should take advantage of them.

And we should especially use the internet to help develop what I was talking about in the previous video: a greater sense of global community.

We’re all people. We may have been carved up into 200 countries. We may have all these competing and conflicting institutions. But those institutional struggles aren’t our struggles. Their interests aren’t our interests.

The more the people of the world break down our barriers, the more we can hold our institutions accountable and make the world a better place for everyone.


This is the 106th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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