Community–Lost And Found

A friend recently shared a Substack newsletter with me (requires subscription but no $$), knowing that the topic–the nature of community formation– was one that concerned me.

He and I have discussed a contention that I have also shared on this blog–my belief that the evisceration of local news, especially the demise of widely-read local newspapers, has diminished what the shared article labeled “horizontal communities.” In other words, the communities that previously formed among residents of the same neighborhood, city or town.

The author didn’t see this as a problem.

 In fact, I think the kind of communities we inhabit has simply changed. In the past, our communities were primarily horizontal — they were simply the people we lived close to on the surface of the Earth. Increasingly, though, new technology has enabled us to construct communities that I’ve decided to call vertical — groups of people united by identities, interests, and values rather than by physical proximity.

Had I been “physically close” to the guy who wrote this, I might have “physically” harmed him.

The bulk of the essay was a love-letter to the Internet, which has allowed billions of people to form communities that ignore geography in exchange for similar “identities, interests and values.” In other words, our ability, thanks to technology, to find people with whom we agree.

Can you spell “polarization”?

The great virtue of those disdained “geographical” communities was precisely the requirement that we find common ground with people unlike ourselves–and that we share an awareness of the multiple ways in which we differed and/or agreed and the various ways in which the local physical and political environments affected us all.

As I used to tell my students, “back in the day” when most residents of our city accessed news provided by the daily newspapers (yes, that’s plural–Indianapolis once had three), those residents inhabited a common information environment. Even if they only picked up a newspaper in order to get the sports news, or listened to a radio or television news personality who relied heavily on what reporters for the local papers had written, they saw the same headlines or heard the same “breaking news” and basically occupied a similar reality.

That common reality empowered local democracy.

Was there a report that city police had engaged in unwarranted brutality? That too many  of the local thoroughfares were filled with potholes? That a member of the local City Council was opposing funding for the library? That crime rates were increasing? (Add your own examples.) Such reports require local political changes–changes that require collaboration among members of those local “horizontal” communities.

If citizen A is determined to elect someone who will fix the streets, s/he needs to work together with citizen B, with whom s/he doesn’t necessarily share other goals or values. That collaboration has a number of beneficial consequences, among them the creation of what sociologists call “bridging social capital.”

“Bonding” social capital is defined as the strong relationships that develop between people of similar background and interests–your family and friends and those Internet acquaintances with whom you share an important identity. “Bridging” social capital describes the connections that link people across the cleavages that typically divide societies (think race,  class, or religion). It builds ‘bridges’ between diverse people.

Without bridging social capital, diverse societies disintegrate.

I do not mean to diminish the value of many of the “vertical” communities enabled by the Internet. Those connections can and do widen our horizons. But we cannot ignore the substantial, troubling ways in which those vertical communities polarize  and divide Americans. And we absolutely cannot and must not abandon our focus on the “horizontal” environments within which we live and work.

The mere fact that we live adjacent to one another doesn’t create a horizontal community. In order for residents of city A or town B to constitute a genuine community, those residents need to occupy a common reality–they need to agree that those holes in the roadway are potholes that need to be filled. Then they need the ability to bridge their other differences in order to work together to repair and/or improve their shared environment.

When citizens lose access to common credible, adequate local information,  they lose an  essential element of the bridging social capital that is the foundation of democratic self-governance.


  1. I think we should all listen to Sarah Huckabee Sanders who says there are two sides: normal and crazy. The irony is she will always be on the wrong side, the crazy side. I’m so glad the “mean girl” told us what to do because I’m a rebel at heart. I question authority.

  2. Well, in my “horizontal community”, in the shadow of Raytheon and ‘mongst the Trumpsters, I need someone to plant my saved yard signs for this election year. My imbalance prevents me from having them out already. I have my Hogsett for Mayor sign, will duct-tape over the 2020 to replant my Anyone But Trump sign (I knew it would be needed again) and will hold off on Pence Must Go to see what Mother decides he is to do. I want to order a Legalize Medical Marijuana sign to plant year-round. My sane, supportive Democratic next door neighbors moved after 9 years; I miss them.

    I watch little of the local TV newscasts; either there isn’t much of anything, even political action, going on here or it isn’t being reported. I Rely on CNN and MSNBC for national, world and political news with a peek at Fox occasionally to see IF they are reporting anything. Cancelled my Indianapolis Star decades long subscription a few years ago; still miss my morning paper but NOT the Star.

    “When citizens lose access to common credible, adequate local information, they lose an essential element of the bridging social capital that is the foundation of democratic self-governance.”

    Sheila’s sentence above says it all.

  3. On the topic of failing United States investigative news coverage, 29-year New York Times veteran, Jeff Gerth, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, published on January 30, 2023 a 24,000 word critique of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and other news outlets.

    In part one of Gerth’s four-part series, he reports, “Today, the US media has the lowest credibility—26 percent—among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.”

  4. IMO we should all be striving to both “bridge” and “bond”. The internet can help to do both. Case in point, in my one block long neighborhood we were experiencing a series of big city problems including shootings (3 in one year), break-ins, fights, and vandalism. Then a young family moved in and took on the situation. Most of the neighborhood at that time were elderly and pretty much self isolated. The young new neighbors, proficient with computers, soon organized a neighborhood gathering, and among other things started a neighborhood web site. It changed things immediately. Many of the neighbors met their neighbors for the first time, we got to compare notes on what we were experiencing, and joined in efforts to get the crime reduced. Security cameras went up, and cooperation with the police increased. Daily life has improved here, and we remain connected to each other.

  5. I’m not sure we could say that Indy had three newspapers. Maybe 2.5 as the Indianapolis News was owned by the Pulliams and took the same editorial stances as the Star. It’s job appeared to be to report on things that happened earlier in the day, after the Star had been put to bed. I loved the Times, where the other side of the editorial coin was forged. My parents took all three and we all read each of them every day. BTW the News didn’t publish on Sunday.

    We only seem to be able to come together after a disaster, when the common goal is self evident. Ian is my most recent episode of community. That sense of community can sometimes linger, giving hope to the romantics among us that it just might be possible to move forward.

  6. Great example, Theresa!

    As a journalist/publisher, I’ve reached folks in China and Africa. My reach internationally has almost eclipsed readers from the USA.

    My original intent early on was to hold the local Gannett newspaper accountable. It still exists, but a Japanese investment firm, SoftBank, now owns Gannett. I’m not sure anybody rallied around the newspaper’s death. I approached the local Chamber about an alternative, Muncie Matters, not knowing how entrenched they are with the local oligarchy. They immediately stole my idea and launched Muncie Journal, a propaganda sheet for local businesses, schools, and the government.

    It 100% serves the oligarchy…

    The oligarchy got a pass from the Gannett newspaper because the nonprofits supported by local philanthropies bought expensive ads. Noam Chomsky referred to this tactic in his five filters of media – the propaganda model.

    The internet is just a tool, and we are quickly moving into the Metaverse, which might change everything because we can create an avatar of ourselves and meet with anybody around the world from the comfort of our homes. They are even making replicas of schools and colleges where you can participate in classes via virtual reality.

    The Metaverse is the solution to what the previous internet caused – isolation. We can even go on virtual vacations to any site worldwide, and it’s a live interaction.

  7. Peggy, I, and my fellow newspaper carriers, delivered to your family Star, News and Times newspapers. I admire your family’s dedication to reading all three. I didn’t learn until years later that the Times had won a Pulitzer Prize, and still in my time likely contained the highest-quality reporting.

    The IUPUI Polis Center tells the proud story of Times’ Pultzer:

    “The Times received a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for “exposing political corruption in Indiana, prosecuting the guilty and bringing about a more wholesome state of affairs in civil government.” The award-winning series appeared in 1927 and exposed Ku Klux Klan activities in Indiana, helping to break the strength of that organization in the state.”

  8. Public education, which is being destroyed by the Republicans, serves the same purpose.

  9. Well, interesting today!

    As my great-grandfather used to say, “back in the day,” which was a pretty long time ago, as stated in the article, horizontal community was how people identified. Before the ability to really travel the average citizen of any community in any country, stayed within a few miles of home. There always were adventurous travelers and explorers, by horseback, by oxen drawn wagons, by schooners, ocean going canoes or rafts but they were not commonplace.

    So, many of the knowledgeable those with wisdom or foresight we’re in those localized communities. Also, the nut Jobs, their sphere of influence basically stayed in that community.

    For the most part, burgeoning newspapers and leaflets that were spread by messengers, we’re pretty much by the board informative. Although by time information reached further out, it was outdated sometimes by many months or more.

    Now we have the WTTW, window to the world that we carry in our pocket! The world is beautiful to look at, but every nut job on this planet is not enjoyable to listen to. Unfortunately, nut Jobs seem to be more diligent in the drive to convince people their nincomporary and lunacy are factual.

    Then you have the weak minded who tend to Be so impressed by the cocksuredness of some of these bombastic conspiratorial psychologically compromised miscreants, that they attach themselves to the teet of insanity! That marsupial pouch where they are fed swill unfit for developing rational thought. It’s easier for them to be told how to think than being able to independently analyze assess and formulate rational thought.

    Something that the world has never seen, the internet, before that, there was the radio. And, as an example, Orson Welles war of the worlds broadcast in 1938, on Halloween no less. People committed suicide, genuine panic, over a radio show! So many believed in that Martian attack, but, was Just an adaptation of HG Wells war of the worlds.

    A more recent example is the uproar over the Chinese balloon, lol, and we should shoot it down immediately! If you don’t shoot it down there’s something wrong with you! Well, the real reason, is the Pentagon actually thought that the balloon could be full of biohazardous elements. And considering the wind patterns, would have taken contaminants across heavily populated areas. That’s the real reason they waited till it was over water and the wind was blowing to the east over the ocean. See how quickly kneejerk stupidity can really cause a problem?

    We are always our own worst enemy, but in this day and age, it’s a runaway train. No one’s at the controls, it’s self-perpetuating.

    An example, or another example, is being gay and gay rights! Gay rights, absolutely, no one should be discriminated against.

    But, when we say keep out of the bedroom, or keep government out of the bedroom, why do we have currently 94 genders? And people constantly forcing all of these genders into everyone’s ears! If your bedroom is private, keep it private! But it seems, that there’s more going on and simply equal rights! It’s the same narcissistic nincomporary that we see conspiracy theorists spout constantly. Keep your private life private! No one needs to know what’s going on in your bedroom! And, it shouldn’t matter! It tends to be a look at me, eat your heart out and I’ll force it down your throat type of world instead of compassionate concern for everyone’s well-being.

    Black Lives Matter is another goofy mantra. Of course Black Lives Matter, but then to throw your weight behind defunding the police? And make that a rallying cry? That doesn’t do much for the cause! So what happens? We find out that there have been leaders in that group embezzling money, but that’s not talked about because everyone’s afraid. And if black lives matter, why aren’t they in the communities where people are being gunned down to by the gross? Life matters, that’s everybody’s job! No matter who you are. But, the majority don’t see it that way. So the decay of society will continue until it’s gone! This world is on that raft shooting the rapids with no way to steer heading straight for the falls. You can see what’s coming, but, no one is able to do anything about it!

  10. John, there are plenty of alternative media websites doing their best to get the message out despite the best efforts of our government intelligentsia censorship and private sector algorithms.

    Julian Assange told us in 2010-11 that Google was not a benevolent search engine. He also told us that the goal was not a successful war but the goal was perpetual war. He talked about the transnational Elite (oligarchs) washing taxpayer money via perpetual wars. He was proven correct in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. It will be China next.

    Here is an excellent explainer about oligarchy and all the media outlets who track the source of our messes versus “reporting on happenings or stenographers for the propaganda spreaders.

  11. Aldous Huxley comments on the potential pitfalls of advancing technology:
    “Technology, Authoritarianism, and Dangers to the Republic.”
    Huxley discusses how changes in technology could threaten the very fabric of our society.
    36 Second clip

  12. “I do not mean to diminish the value of many of the “vertical” communities enabled by the Internet. Those connections can and do widen our horizons.”

    WADR – please provide examples including how the “widening of horizons” has a material positive impact.

    A great topic and a key reference – “Bowling Alone” book.

  13. Todd,

    Thank you, this looks like a very deep dive. Maybe sometime this evening when I have more time, I will dig into this, just skimming it looks very interesting, again thank you.

  14. A modern challenge in my mind is this. The internet exposes those most comfortable in mentally gated horizontally oriented geographical communities to the facts of global diversity. That blows up a lot of heads. The truth is that we can choose to live in both of those realities or to be comfortable in only one of them. Our choice has no effect on the realities but only on ourselves in the light of both.

  15. Lester’s reference to “Bowling Alone” reminds me that the loss of newspapers is only one factor. Similarly, there is the loss of local news. Yes, we have our affiliates with news at 6 and 11, but with 1,000 channels, there are too many other places to turn during those hours if you are in front of your TV.

    On a similar vein, there are 1,000 channels, all with “must see” shows and 1,000 sub-genres of music. We are sliced and diced into a multitude of cultural sub-factions.

    One other thing I wonder about is attached garages. Nobody uses their front door; they leave through the garage, go to work, come back home and enter through the garage. You barely see your neighbors. Contrast this with the old days of detached garages, street parking, elevator buildings, or tenements with stoops. Much less room to interact with your neighbors.

    Gail’s comment on education is also spot on. Growing up, there were public school kids and parochial school (basically Catholic where I lived) kids. We didn’t mix much, even when we lived on the same block. I lost touch with some of my elementary school friends when they were pulled away to the “magnet” school. Public schools reinforce community (the horizontal kind).

    Given all of that, I don’t want to sound like the old curmudgeon that I am saying “back in my day”, or a dystopian Sarah Huckabee Sanders bemoaning the end of civilization. Things change. A good friend of mine sold her house here and moved to Oakland where she is living in a community arrangement (can’t remember what they call it), with her own apartment, communal rooms, and regular community meals. Community reborn.

  16. We certainly do need both kinds of social capital.
    We do not need Huckabee’s idiocy. if Biden
    “surrendered” to the woke folks, it’s only because he’s
    got a functioning brain…poor guy.

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