Has technology altered our sense of community?

(co-authored with Anne Wojtaszek Lee)

The advent and growth of the Internet have made it possible for news organizations of all sizes to extend their coverage areas and reach audiences all over the world. But advances in technology also may have altered our concept of community because the Internet has eliminated geographic barriers of communication.

Research we are conducting at St. Bonaventure University is aimed at determining whether our sense of community is shifting away from traditional geographic-based communities and turning toward topic- and interest-based communities formed around subjects such as sports, theater and public policy.

The research involves The Convergence, an online news site staffed by St. Bonaventure journalism students who cover communities near the university. In a small survey, we asked participants to indicate what link on The Convergence homepage they were most likely to click first. Links to topics such as news, opinion, entertainment and sports were selected more than twice as many times as links to the towns covered by Convergence reporters.

These early findings support a prediction made in 1998 by Thornton May, an author, educator and futurist, who said technology will eventually trivialize the concept of place. Other researchers have reached different conclusions. A 2009 study by Rachel Davis Mersey, an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, found a strong attachment to geographic communities among readers of the Arizona Republic and its website, azcentral.com.

Clearly, we should not read too much into the results of our small survey, which was based on 73 responses. The topic warrants additional research because if there truly is a shift in our sense of community, the repercussions could be significant.

For example, a citizenry unengaged with the communities in which they live could result in adverse effects on public policy. Building support for schools, economic development and infrastructure improvements — which already is challenging — would become more difficult. Elected officials would become less accountable as interest in, and scrutiny of, local government diminishes.

A shift in our sense of community also could have a profound impact on journalism.

Almost all news organizations are businesses that exist not only to keep the public informed, but also to make a profit. The two functions sometimes are at odds, but the pressure to turn a profit and bring in revenue is immense. The more readers and viewers a news organization attracts, the greater its profit becomes, so coverage of government and civic affairs could decrease as interest in geographically defined communities wanes.

Changes in journalism and public policy, should they occur, would not be isolated developments. The Internet already has impacted much of our daily lives; altering our sense of community might very well be a quite natural progression.

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