Consider this picture: Five teenagers sit in silence on the grass at the community park on a bright summer day. Each one seems to be isolated in their own world as they scroll through countless posts on their phone. To the casual observer, this may seem like the worst form of disengagement – the most common occurrence of technology isolation.
But, is it? Community organizers might want to hold back before condemning technology as a force for disengagement; virtual networks might actually be an emerging tool for uniting a community.
Cast back to fifty, twenty, or even ten years ago, when technology hadn’t yet taken root in everyday life, and platforms from communication were confined within geographical and publishing boundaries. Those driven to share their ideas or make a difference had to work tirelessly to spread their message to those in their immediate area; and even then, word-of-mouth, letters, and flyers only spread notice so far. Moreover, reaching out on a multi-community or national scale was nearly impossible without considerable funding and research. But today, the onset of social networking and electronic communication has gifted every person with access to an Internet connection the ability to share their opinions and circulate their ideas.
But, does this boost engagement more than shouting from a hypothetical community town hall would? Research indicates in the affirmative. Statistics provided by the Pew Research Center indicate an upward trend in online political engagement over the past few years – and analysts additionally note that a boost in online engagement can lead to an uptick of participation offline. For instance, nearly half of the participants surveyed in 2012 opted to learn more about a political or social issue after reading about it online – and a full 19% decided to pursue real-world action after doing the same.
So, what does this tell us? For one, that technology has the potential to enact real social change by spurring otherwise quiet community members to action. In fact, technology’s capability to provide an easy outlet to those who lack a real-world platform to speak from may not simply facilitate engagement, but encourage it. Civic engagement expert Lisa Attygalle explains in the foreword of her book, How Technology Boosts Engagement:
Studies show that a community’s sense of belonging is directly connected with their ability to understand and help shape the vision for their community […] They want to be involved in creating the change themselves. They want to be engaged.
Community members want to participate – but engaging in the real world is often difficult. Geographical, financial, and power restrictions can prevent the average person from achieving the platform they need to engage a significant number of people, and to launch effective discussions. Technology wipes these obstacles away by providing a connective space for all to share community news and ideas for change.
With this in mind, let’s return to those five teenagers at the park. They might be sitting silently – but perhaps one is coordinating plans to attend a political rally, and another connecting with volunteers for a community philanthropic event. Before lambasting technology as an isolating force, think: just how unaware and uninvolved would communities be without it?