Lost and Saved . . . Again: The Moral Panic about the Loss of Community Takes Hold of Social Media

Keith N. Hampton and Barry Wellman in Contemporary Sociology:”Why does every generation believe that relationships were stronger and community better in the recent past? Lamenting about the loss of community, based on a selective perception of the present and an idealization of ‘‘traditional community,’’ dims awareness of powerful inequalities and cleavages that have always pervaded human society and favors deterministic models over a nuanced understanding of how network affordances contribute to different outcomes. The beˆtes noirs have varied according to the moral panic of the times: industrialization, bureaucratization, urbanization, capitalism, socialism, and technological developments have all been tabbed by such diverse commentators as Thomas Jefferson (1784), Karl Marx (1852), Louis Wirth (1938), Maurice Stein (1960), Robert Bellah et al. (1996), and Tom Brokaw (1998). Each time, observers look back nostalgically to what they supposed were the supportive, solidary communities of the previous generation. Since the advent of the internet, the moral panicers have seized on this technology as the latest cause of lost community, pointing with alarm to what digital technologies are doing to relationships. As the focus shifts to social media and mobile devices, the panic seems particularly acute….

Taylor Dotson’s (2017) recent book Technically Together has a broader timeline for the demise of community. He sees it as happen- ing around the time the internet was popularized, with community even worse off as a result of Facebook and mobile devices. Dotson not only blames new technologies for the decline of community, but social theory, specifically the theory and the practice of ‘‘networked individualism’’: the relational turn from bounded, densely knit local groups to multiple, partial, often far-flung social networks (Rainie and Wellman 2012). Dotson takes the admirable position that social science should do more to imagine different outcomes, new technological possibilities that can be created by tossing aside the trends of today and engineering social change through design….

Some alarm in the recognition that the nature of community is changing as technologies change is sensible, and we have no quarrel with the collective desire to have better, more supportive friends, families, and communities. As Dotson implies, the maneuverability in having one’s own individually networked community can come at the cost of local group solidarity. Indeed, we have also taken action that does more than pontificate to promote local community, building community on and offline (Hampton 2011).

Yet part of contemporary unease comes from a selective perception of the present and an idealization of other forms of community. There is nostalgia for a perfect form of community that never was. Longing for a time when the grass was ever greener dims an awareness of the powerful stresses and cleavages that have always pervaded human society. And advocates, such as Dotson (2017), who suggest the need to save a particular type of community at the expense of another, often do so blind of the potential tradeoffs….(More)”