Sociologist Barry Wellman recalls first hearing stories about the death of civic life when he was doing graduate work in 1963.
But far from people retreating from community life, as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam most recently has suggested, Wellman’s research indicates the opposite.
Wellman is co-author of Networked: The New Social Operating System and director of the University of Toronto’s NetLab.
With technology, he says, people are now better connected to each other, whether it’s to their local community, their close friends or family.
What’s changed is that when it comes to civic engagement, those connections and how we make them often don’t fit the conventional definitions.
“Community is no longer neighbourhood,” Wellman says. “Neighbours are not who people turn to for help. People are using Facebook, Twitter or email as their community.”
Community now means people with shared values or interests who connect and organize using technology.
It was social networking, for example, that brought out many of the volunteers to clean up the morning after the Stanley Cup riot. Yet those volunteers wouldn’t have been captured in the Vancouver Foundation’s survey that asked participants whether they had volunteered with any organizations or groups.