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.