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Newsletter, June 2007

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Social networking systems and community cohesion

Following an article on Radio 4’s Today programme, last week I joined up to Facebook, one of the new social networking systems on the internet. My twenty-two year-old daughter who uses it to keep in touch with her friends at university was not exactly overjoyed. “OK, I’ll be your friend as long as you don’t write anything embarrassing on my wall,” she said. I have promised to behave myself.

I have belonged to electronic networking systems for business before but Facebook and similar ones like Bebo and MySpace have a much more personal flavour; they make it easy to have the kind of mundane interactions that are the stuff of friendship.

Could systems like this contribute to community cohesion in real local communities? In principle it is possible to set up local groups that people could join if they live in the same area, so that is not a problem. The real obstacle seems to be about the way that we choose with whom to interact.

In a real community there are accidental interactions with strangers, in the corner shop, the library and the pottery class. When these people are different from ourselves in any of the obvious ways like race or religion or even in terms of age or differing views, brief, friendly interactions are good for social cohesion. They help us to trust each other even when we are different.

Electronic social networking systems don’t yet have an obvious equivalent of the corner shop. To enlarge your circle of friends you can do a search using quite sophisticated criteria, but surely these searches would always be based on our similarities, not our differences. In giving us so much choice over our friends, social networking systems as they are currently designed seem to allow us to stay in the comfort of what we know.

Although community cohesion might not be improved much by such systems, mutual understanding of people within a community can certainly be improved using the right kind of software. Online systems for public engagement can collect people’s views on a contentious issue and then allow them to be read back by the contributors in a completely transparent way. This allows anyone who is open enough to listen to opposing sides of an argument to understand the views of others. (It is hard to visualise this without seeing an example. To see how this can be done in practice, have a look at the online consultation we ran for Defra on England’s Waste Strategy.)

Online consultations can make a contribution to community cohesion because mutual understanding is an important step towards building trust.

Gideon Mitchell


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