Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing

Tomorrow (after a very quick trip down to DC and back for the National Conference on Citizenship), I’ll start teaching a course at Tufts called “Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing.” It is a practical project course that will engage the students in mapping Somerville’s civil society. The course website — which will include a blog, a network map, and other interactive features — is here. The syllabus is here.

Parallel to the project will be seminar on relevant theory. The biggest theoretical question in my mind is the relationship between new social networks–which are entirely voluntary and non-hierarchical–and traditional civic networks, which often involve structures. One thread in our class will pursue that question by looking at an enormously important social change in Boston’s recent past, the struggles between working class whites and people of color and the resulting shifts of population.

Gerald H. Gamm, in Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, argues that institutional structure is destiny. Jewish communities moved out of Boston because synagogues are independent voluntary associations. When individual members make choices to move, their congregations die and new ones form where the individuals have relocated. In contrast, Irish Catholic communities stayed in Boston because the hierarchical church was able to provide resources and set rules that kept their churches in place. The value judgments we draw from Gamm’s book are debatable (for instance, was it bad that Jews moved out of Mattapan and African Americans moved in?), but the causal argument is clear: hierarchical structures are more resilient than voluntary ones.

On the other hand, parts of Boston’s South End have been able to form new social organizations that promote the welfare and stability of the neighborhood and include people from different cultures and classes. These examples suggest that institutional structure isn’t destiny; you can change it. Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar tell one such story in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood. Like Gamm’s, their book implies that we need order and structure; it’s just that we can make new organizations.

The syllabus also includes books like Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks that celebrate the increase of “practical individual autonomy” that the Internet has given us. The Internet is more like a set of synagogues than a single community organization, let alone a global church. But what kinds of problems can a decentralized voluntary network solve? What problems or vulnerabilities does it create? And how can we achieve both autonomy and resilience?