4 Surfing alone? E-commerce and social capital – Digital Futures

4 Surfing alone? E-commerce and social capital

Ben Jupp and Tom Bentley


Do you generally trust others? Do you get involved in your local school or neighbourhood association? Are you interested in politics? Your answers to these questions indicate something about the UK's sustainability.

Sustainability requires much more than looking after our physical environment. Social and economic contexts are equally important. The UK needs people with skills and good health, low levels of crime, investment in infrastructure and technology. More than anything else, people need to be able to work together. While none of us can be sure of the challenges we will face in the future, we can be certain that meeting them will require cooperation. In general terms, three social conditions enhance our ability to work together.

Diverse social networks

The friendships and informal networks which criss-cross society are the sinews of cooperation. Through them we exchange ideas, support and information.

High levels of trust

To work together, people need confidence in each other. The more people are prepared to trust each other, especially those they do not know very well, the less they have to spend time and resources covering their own backs.

Good civic institutions

Working together also relies on a whole raft of civic organizations, such as local residents’ groups, political parties, pressure groups, unions, charities, schools and churches. These enable people to get involved in solving problems, provide a forum for debate and help democratic governance.

Collectively, these three conditions – networks, trust and civic institutions – are often called social capital.1 They are resources that help us to cooperate.

Social capital is critical for societies to prosper economically. Countries with strong social capital also tend to have relatively effective governments and successful societies.2 In the US, a recent study that compared social capital across different states found that those with high social capital tend to have lower crime, better educational results and healthier populations. The same can be true at the local level. Many of the most run-down neighbourhoods in the UK are characterized by fear, social isolation and weak community institutions.

Overall, the quality of social capital in the UK is mixed. To answer the questions above: 48 per cent of people trust others most or all of the time; about 10 per cent are involved in a local school or other local community activities; and about 2 per cent are members of a political party.

What of the future? This chapter investigates the possible impact of e-commerce. It asks whether the growth in e-commerce is likely to enhance or erode social capital, and what, if anything, government and others can do to encourage applications of internet technologies that help to create social and civic value.

Many are gloomy about the impact of e-commerce on informal social networks. We are generally upbeat. All sorts of social networks are already being supported by new technologies. Some of the chat rooms and virtual communities that e-commerce has directly fostered over the last three years are now declining; but e-commerce is supporting the infrastructure that will allow social networks to expand. These networks will gain from cheaper internet access through digital TV, internet service providers that are funded through advertising revenues, and software that is developed primarily for the e-commerce market.

We are also upbeat about social trust in an age of e-commerce. In contrast to the industrial revolution, which physically displaced people into cities, e-commerce is not yet forcing people into an alien virtual world. At the moment, electronic communication almost always supplements and strengthens traditional forms of relationship, communication and exchange. More information is available about individuals and companies, creating the potential for stronger, more open relationships, provided that transparency does not undermine trust by invading people's privacy.

In contrast to this overall positive picture, however, we argue that existing civic organizations and institutions are not faring well on the e-commerce-dominated Internet. Some civic groups are using e-commerce to improve their effectiveness. They are exploiting the networks it has spawned and are using the tools it has created, such as online trading systems and database technologies. Most are not. The vast majority of traditional civic institutions are failing to reshape their organizations around electronic exchange. At the same time, the new breed of e-civic groups, such as online local networks, are struggling to attract large numbers of users, or are being squeezed out by the cost of competing with cash-rich dot-coms.

Yet the slow progress of civic institutions in using e-commerce could change. They could learn from the successes and failures of businesses. In the last section of this chapter, we explore how they can learn to use the tools of e-commerce more effectively. We suggest that the building blocks of successful strategies include the following principles:

  • Think local. Civic institutions need to harness the power of e-commerce tools and tailor them to local conditions. One of the opportunities presented by the internet is for civic and social organizations to join international networks; but the first waves of e-commerce have shown that success often begins with the local. Strategies might include using postcodes to give people information about their local environment, opening up local institutions such as primary schools to greater use and scrutiny, or undertaking street level referendums on local issues.
  • Think enterprise. Civic institutions can make money in the new economy by trading local knowledge. New forms of reporting and web audits could allow people to see how such social enterprise balances commercial and civic objectives.
  • Think mutuality. E-commerce is helping to establish new forms of exchange between individuals, from Napster to eBay. These forms of exchange could support a revival of mutual forms of organizations, particularly based around sharing knowledge.
  • Think distribution networks. The main impact of e-commerce has been felt in the supply chains within and between business. The supply chains of the civic sector – grants, donations, and volunteering – remain largely untouched. We need trailblazing grant givers to start operating entirely through the web, automated monitoring and evaluation systems for groups who receive grants, and sites that allow people to inform charities of what they have to give away.

We also suggest that e-businesses can be encouraged to take on a more civic role, as partners in the creation of new content and web architecture.

The impact of e-commerce

Virtual communities are dead: long live community

Commerce and social networks have a long history of mutual dependency. Friendships ease commerce, from gentlemen's clubs to Tupperware parties. Commerce provides the infrastructure for friendship, from teenagers hanging out in shopping malls to the roads, railways and airports that have grown to service business, but which also help us to visit friends and relations. Many argue that the internet and its applications will generate entirely new forms of social network. People will no longer be restricted by physical limits, such as the boundaries of the local neighbourhood.

Enter e-commerce. What types of network is it supporting? A year ago the answer would have been simple. Chat rooms on the internet – or ‘virtual communities’ as many styled themselves – seemed the ultimate symbiosis between commerce and community. Here's how the business model was supposed to work. Companies encouraged people to form online communities by providing the infrastructure: a site with message boards, chat rooms, email lists and photo albums. In these communities, people would talk about their hobbies, their worries, their desire for sex – anything, really. The most important thing was that they hung around. By doing so, they would be viewing the adverts featured on the site. It was a bit like a company giving away a neighbourhood of houses, just so that the people who moved in could see the adverts in the surrounding streets.

The portal Yahoo! has invested heavily in this model. It encourages people to set up their own online club, and in May 1999 it paid US$5 billion for GeoCities, a homepage-building service. ‘Our goal is to attract [visitors] and create an environment where they want to stick around’ says Jeff Mallet, Yahoo!’s chief executive.3 Sites for young people such as DoBeDo also help users build their own graphical ‘avatars’ (3D bodies), with which users can chat to each other and visit online stores.

Two problems have arisen with this model. First, many virtual communities have been fairly unattractive places in which to hang around. Full of half-sentences from complete strangers, some are worse than the worst singles bar. Even software such as Third Voice, which allows users to annotate web sites so that other users can see, gets pretty tedious. Who cares what a teenager from Iowa thinks about the website you are looking at?

More importantly, advertising revenue has been lower than forecast. Based on interviews with 50 community site executives, Forrester Research concludes that the concept of an online community is less effective than other forms of marketing in converting lurkers into buyers. They also found that people are particularly wary of adverts in chat rooms. In other words, the vital ‘click through’ to an e-commerce site just isn't happening. In response, companies are beginning to move away from the aim of stimulating general socializing, towards online communities that are much more tightly integrated with the content and commerce elements of the site.4 For example, the clothing firm Lands End has introduced a tool that allows two people to chat in real time while shopping online.5

The idea that e-commerce will spontaneously create myriad new virtual social networks is probably a red herring; but there are mutually supportive links between online commerce and community. E-commerce is creating the types of electronic network and tools which people can also use to support broader social interaction. In this sense, social networks are free-riding on commercial networks in time-honoured fashion. In the same way that roads and railways, which were built primarily to transport goods, are also used for social purposes, the infrastructure of the internet creates opportunities for new forms of social connection.

Digital TV (DTV) is perhaps the best example. The cost of internet access through DTV is relatively low, largely because DTV companies have signed huge deals with retailers who will sell goods through the same channels. Much web architecture and software has also been developed to meet the needs of e-commerce (for example broadband technology), or because developers thought that they could make money from advertising (for example Hotmail).

The result is an explosion in social relationships that depend in some way on cheap electronic communication. The social network that has gained most from this is the extended family. Recent research in Trinidad found that the internet stimulated far greater contact between cousins who would traditionally lose touch as they moved to different geographical areas; and tracing family trees is one of the most popular research activities of the 21st century.6 According to the National Genealogical Society, more than 80 million Americans are involved in tracing their roots, many of them using the web.

More generally, the internet is being used to reinforce a whole range of existing relationships. One study of America Online (AOL) users found that 9 out of 10 take up the service to communicate better with friends and family, and 8 out of 10 have suggested to friends that they should also get online.7

Other networks that may be strengthened are those that revolve around local neighbourhoods. A recent study of a Canadian neighbourhood, in which some people were given free internet services and others were not, supports this assertion.8 The researchers found that those who were connected recognized 27 neighbours by name and talked to 7 on a regular basis. This compared with the non-connected residents who, on average, knew only 9 by name and regularly spoke to 4. Such evidence runs counter to the common concern that the internet could be the ultimate isolating technology, reducing our participation in communities even more than television did before it.9 Self-help networks of people sharing advice and information are also being stimulated by the internet. These can link people facing similar challenges or life experiences, as the following extract illustrates.

‘Newsgroups were an absolute lifesaver for me in the early days of motherhood. One of the first I found was misc.kids.breastfeeding which kept me sane and provided masses of advice, wisdom and support at a time when I really needed it. I really wanted to breastfeed my child, but had no family support apart from my husband… Crucially, it also gave me the opportunity to give support to others when I became an old hand myself. This was a real boost to me – that’ s the whole point of peer support.’10

Often, such sites bring together people who have been relatively isolated; those with disabilities, those with particular religious or political beliefs, those with specific illnesses. They do, however, build on what is already there. The number of self-help groups, from Alcoholics Anonymous to reading groups, was already growing before the internet. As with families and neighbourhoods, electronic communication often supplements existing networks, rather than creating something completely new.

Future challenges

The general influence of e-commerce-supported technologies on social networks appears to have been relatively benign. New virtual communities are rarely created from scratch; instead, two processes are underway. One is a strengthening of existing patterns of interaction. The second is a more spontaneous set of innovations, enabling people to exchange knowledge and coordinate activity around issues of mutual interest.

This does not mean, however, that all social networks are being strengthened. There are barriers to access for some people, particularly in lower income groups. Some traditional meeting places are likely to suffer. Studies suggest that high streets in major towns and cities will flourish, but in smaller towns and rural areas, retail facilities are likely to decline. This means that those who use them for socializing may well lose out.

Networks that are reinforced by new electronic forms of communication also raise an interesting challenge for social inclusivity. Societies with very closed networks tend not to be the most cooperative; people become wary of others. Such societies are held back economically and socially because they become unable to work together. Southern Italy is a good example.

The social networks being stimulated by the internet can tend towards exclusivity. Faced with millions of potential members, forums have to be selective. As one publisher of an electronic newsletter argues, ‘I hate to sound undemocratic, but if you're going to have valuable discussion you have to limit it to people with valuable knowledge’.11 Consequently, over the last couple of years, communities of interest on the net have become harder to join. Some require new members to be nominated by other members, just like the London clubs of old.

A degree of exclusivity is inevitable among self-selecting social groups; people have always mixed with others similar to themselves. However, it does reinforce the need for a more inclusive public realm of interaction and cooperation to develop alongside informal networks. Civic institutions are needed that can support these more open networks.

Trust me, I'm a dot-com

In February 2000, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed a popular concern about the net. ‘Access to information and the ability to tap resources not otherwise available can be a potent tool of empowerment. But it can also be exclusive and isolating’, he noted. ‘You may argue that email is a way of making important connections. That's true, but it can also be a distorting and unsatisfactory one in which self-deception and evasion are prominent.’12

Others put this argument more scientifically. Professor John Locke of Sheffield University suggests that the internet is leading to ‘de-voicing’. He cites a 1997 survey of 1000 British workers, in which nearly half said that the internet had replaced some form of face to face communication. As a result, he argues that trust will decrease because less information is capable of being exchanged in electronic form.13 People are no longer able to make judgements on the basis of body language or speech intonation. This perception of online communications as untrustworthy is reinforced by news stories. Worries abound about online credit card fraud, and a handful of men have been convicted of raping women whom they met on the net, deceiving them into meeting up through their online personas.

So will e-commerce undermine social trust, even if it provides the tools to stimulate social networks? A lot of fears sprout from a general misconception that e-commerce is helping to create a virtual world – a space in which people never really see or meet each other and are therefore unable to share enough information or common experiences on which to base their trust. In fact, as we noted earlier, the e-world is going in the opposite direction. Even if the initial contact with an individual or organization is electronic, it usually quickly turns into a face to face relationship as well. Internet banks have recently started opening branches. The CompuServe police discussion forum now has an annual barbecue. The AOL camping and caravanning group organize joint holidays and the Scottish community on AOL's Local Life channel have regular social get-togethers. The survey of a Canadian neighbourhood referred to previously found that ‘relationships are rarely maintained through computer-mediated communication alone, but are sustained through a combination of online and offline interactions.’14

Far from de-voicing, electronic communication is often supplementing relationships. In particular, it is allowing people to find out more about the organizations and individuals they are dealing with. One click on Google throws up information on an expanding proportion of the population. Novell has developed software that allows people to send a bundle of useful information about themselves to commercial and social contacts. Likewise, people can use the new networks to find out about companies they want to buy goods and services from. Such additional information appears to be stimulating trust among those who access it. For example, Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris has found that those people who use new media to find out about politics and current affairs tend to become more trusting of the political system.

In the long term, e-commerce also has the potential to increase people's trust in organizations because fostering trust on the net is such a high priority for e-businesses. Companies are putting an incredible amount of work into increasing the security and reliability of the technology they use. For example, First-e, the internet bank, recently set up a six-person consumer council to act as a watchdog for the bank's customers.

Future challenges

Early trends suggest that social trust may increase as a result of the information available on the web. Tools for fostering trust are being developed by e-commerce companies. Individual relationships are generally being supplemented, rather than replaced, by electronic communications.

There is, however, an underlying challenge of maintaining privacy in this more transparent and connected world. Privacy issues on the internet have failed to generate much public excitement. People are concerned that their credit card details are going to get into the wrong hands, but few have paid much attention to the routine information that they provide about themselves when they are online.

Yet as financial pressures on dot-coms rise, so do the pressures to make money by using customer information. Kevin O'Connor, the 39-year-old chief executive of DoubleClick, has made his fortune from piecing together clues about people. His software tracks the sites people visit and banner advertising is then tailored to reflect their likely interests. But DoubleClick wanted to do more. It bought the largest database of household information in the US, for a cool US$1.7 billion. Its aim was to link that database to information collected on the internet, in order to create complete profiles of people's interests and patterns of consumption.

While companies argue that such information collation simply helps them target advertising better, it is unlikely that it will increase trust in companies. DoubleClick was eventually barred from merging its different databases, reflecting government and consumer wariness about companies holding such large amounts of personal information. The challenge is to ensure that data protection legislation keeps up with such developments. If it does not, trust levels are likely to fall.

E-commerce meets e-civics?

Trust and informal networks are crucial for social cooperation. They help individuals work together and share information and resources. Networks also form the basis for political and civic action. It was out of the informal networks in coffee houses that many of the political movements of the 18th century grew, and it was out of the workplace communities of the 19th century that unions and new political parties emerged.

Yet history shows that spontaneous, informal innovation of this kind must be reinforced and underpinned by institutional frameworks, in order for their longer-term potential to be realized and made available to large numbers of people. As we have already noted, informal networks may be relatively narrow. Society also needs public institutions that bring together many sections of the population. Solving common problems is also easier when there are formal structures for debate and action.

It is no coincidence that social progress has often followed the development of better civic institutions. It was improvements to the institutions of government in the 19th century – such as extending the vote, increasing accountability, and developing a neutral civil service – which laid the foundations for many of the social improvements of the 20th century. It was the development of mutual societies and voluntary hospitals and schools in the early 20th century that laid the foundations for the health and education services of today.

Staying offline

Many people hope that electronic networks will prompt a new wave of civic institution building, revitalizing democracy, community groups and public sector organizations. However, the evidence so far suggests that these hopes are not being fulfilled. The vast majority of charities, community groups, parent–teacher associations, political parties and so on have not yet started to use e-technologies to change the ways in which they work as organizations. Even among larger voluntary organizations, progress is fairly slow. Research in 1999 among NGOs with annual incomes of more than UK£250,000 found that 84 per cent used some form of computer networking. Of these, 67 per cent used email and just over half had a website; these figures are reasonable. Yet only 3.6 per cent said that new networks had led to changes in communication processes and only 4.4 per cent to changes in working practices.15

Some have improved their strategies since then. Greenpeace, for example, encourages people to become ‘cyber-activists’. The Free Tibet Campaign has attracted five million people to its website. The majority of pressure groups, however, still confine their strategy to a basic website and the use of email. They have not used technology in innovative ways to create improvements in the efficiency of their activities or to boost their membership.


If established civic organizations are not changing the way they work to incorporate tools developed for e-commerce, what about the new breed of internet-based civic groups? Like the dot-coms, some of the first civic organizations to use the web were start-ups – entirely new organizations established to exist solely on the web. Groups such as the Minnesota e-democracy project (www.e-democracy.com), or CharlotteWeb, the community portal and forum in North Carolina, set out to be the Amazon.coms and eBays of the civic world. They aimed to embrace the new technologies, using databases, discussion groups, and automated ordering systems to find new ways of addressing civic issues; but they hit a problem. The sector has no equivalent to the deep-pocketed venture capitalists who ploughed money into dot-coms as running costs increased, with the result that many sites have run out of money. Take CharlotteWeb: established in 1995, it received an initial grant of nearly half a million dollars, closely followed by several other large donations. It won awards. It spread to a large area. Now the site is largely abandoned, a rarely-updated adjunct to the local newspaper's online edition.

Many other local and civic sites have the same problem. Grassroots.com, established to provide online tools for political activists, has just converted itself into a consultancy and lobbying organization. Politics.com and OneDemocracy.com have both closed.

The difficulties for dot-civics are similar to those faced by many dot-coms. Firstly, they compete in a crowded market in which only the best sites develop a critical mass of interest. Many of the not-for-profit political sites in the US attracted far less attention during last year's presidential election than CNN, CBS and other mainstream news organizations. They just couldn't match the level of instant coverage and analysis that people wanted. The costs of marketing are also escalating, as search engines start to request payments for high ratings.

Secondly, developing and maintaining multi-functional sites can be extremely expensive. One survey found that it now costs around UK£1 million to set up a commerce-enabled web site, more than twice the cost of a year ago. A typical commercial web site costs £590,000 a year to run.16 The money pouring into e-commerce has helped to inflate these costs. The millions flowing into dot-coms have priced civics out of the market, as software engineers, project managers and state of the art software become ever more expensive. One of the largest civic organizations in the UK told us that its internet strategy was being held back because it simply could not find enough technical staff; dot-civics have no share options to wave in front of potential employees. Whether these problems will be resolved now the dot-com bubble is deflated is yet to be seen.

Yet some dot-civics are thriving. VolunteerMatch (www.volunteer-match.org) uses online technology to link people and volunteering opportunities in the US. Timebank has set up a similar scheme in the UK (timebank.org.uk) supported by, among others, the Home Office and the BBC. Timebank's site provides users with information about a wide range of volunteering opportunities matched to the user's postcode or special interests. Oneworld (www.oneworld.net) hosts a network of 724 organizations that promote human rights and sustainable development. It includes information sites, fair trade retailers, and community groups, and also has an agreement to use content from The Guardian newspaper online.

Some of the more successful sites are actually commercial ventures, with access to the same sort of venture capital as mainstream dot-coms. At the GreaterGood.com shopping portal (www.greatergood.com), visitors can shop at over 100 leading online merchants – including Amazon.com, Nordstrom, Lands End, Dell and Office Max – and up to 15 per cent of each purchase automatically goes to an organization that they select, at no extra cost to them. In 2000, they anticipated generating over US$5 million for organizations such as Special Olympics, Save the Children and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Yet despite such successes, the general picture is that civic engagement has, at best, been only marginally stimulated by the new tools associated with e-commerce. If anything, e-commerce has priced some civic organizations off the internet. The challenge is to find better ways for civic organizations to exploit the tools and networks that e-commerce has created. Imagination and resources are needed to apply these tools to stimulate participation in all sorts of civic decisions, from how the local school is run to the priorities of national political parties. For those interested in the UK's sustainability, this institutional focus must be a priority.

Ideas for stimulating civic institutions

A number of suggestions for stimulating civic institutions through e-commerce flow from our analysis. Some of these can be supported by government. Most also require action by individuals and organizations.

Four ways forward

Think local

One of the conclusions of our analysis is that electronic relationships are closely linked to face to face relationships. The idea of a virtual world that floats in cyberspace is a myth. Instead, people bring their real relationships, their local identities and their tangible needs to all forms of electronic exchange. For civic organizations, the lesson is to combine online and off-line activities and strategies. Most people are not interested in joining purely virtual communities. They want to ground these connections in their day to day lives.

This grounding needs to incorporate a local element. Although most people spend a lot of time away from their local areas, and neighbourhoods are rarely homogeneous social groups, people are far more likely to get involved in local forms of activity than any other. This is the scale at which society influences house prices, fear of crime, their children's educational prospects and their enjoyment of public space. Community participation is still often strongest at the local level. A Home Office study from the early 1990s valued the contribution of local community organizations at UK£11–12 billion each year. Their contributions include:

  • security for 5 million homes covered by 120,000 neighbourhood watch schemes;
  • community-run playgroups and pre-school childcare for 1 million parents;
  • transport from 5000 community transport schemes; and
  • support for schools from 350,000 school governors.

Some of the most successful civic sites have drawn on local interest. The Environmental Defence Fund (www.scorecard.org) has established a website that gives people information about pollution in their neighbourhood. This is an example of how powerful database tools can provide new civic services for local people. Users simply type in their postcode and are given a local pollution analysis. The site also provides information and tools for responding to that information, such as advice on how to complain to local politicians. In its first year, the site was used by two million people.

Thinking local does not necessarily mean that sites such as CharlotteWeb should be revived. They were often too heavily focused on providing forums, with not enough emphasis on practical delivery of improvements to people's lives – the catalyst for voluntary participation. However, a local strategy should use e-commerce tools to extend the scope of local institutions and activities. Opportunities include:

  • Local feedback systems and referendums. Many people will only get involved in very local issues – things that happen in their street or local school. A MORI survey for Birmingham City Council found that one-third of the population would like more control over their immediate public environment, such as roads and pavements. Often, issues flair up quickly, generating collective involvement, before subsiding equally rapidly. Online systems could be used to facilitate the quick resolution of such issues. For example, people could be asked to vote on whether a street maintenance firm should be sacked. On a longer-term basis, electronic communication and data analysis tools could help local organizations such as schools, parks and health centres to establish their own targets for improvement – a shift from the centrally-imposed target regimes that currently shape most public organizations.
  • Interactive websites. Relationships between frontline staff and users are the foundation for community involvement in public services. Park keepers who know park users are far more useful than formal questionnaires. They can solicit feedback, encourage people to get involved, or just make them feel welcome. Online technologies could help to forge such relationships. Frontline staff could use the web to supplement their face to face relationships, by developing sites which provide and receive local information.

Think enterprise

The UK has a long tradition of community enterprise – voluntary groups developing innovative schemes to meet local needs, often based on a mixture of not-for-profit and for-profit activities. These range from the voluntary hospitals and schools of the 19th century to development trusts today. E-commerce creates opportunities for new forms of community enterprise. If companies like GreaterGood.com can make money, then so can the civic sector. An interesting example is the mutual learning and trading system for social organizations set up by the Community Action Network (www.can-online.org.uk). Groups may also be able to develop new ways of selling local knowledge; for example, networks of local residents might be able to provide useful information online to retailers who are considering establishing services in their communities.

E-commerce systems could help community enterprises increase the transparency of their work in order to attract grants. The UK's public services are in dire need of innovative, enterprising ideas, but using public money to fund non-public bodies raises serious issues of accountability. Government cannot just give money away without being sure that it is well spent.

Too often, the need for accountability leads to labyrinthine monitoring and audit arrangements that stifle the very innovation that the dispersing public funds aim to create. Electronic systems have the potential to change this. They could create new, open systems for decision making and financial transactions. Accounts and minutes of management meetings can be made publicly available. As openness increases, more money can be distributed throughout the sector.

Think mutuality

E-commerce is helping establish new forms of exchange between individuals. Sites such as Napster (www.napster.com) and Gnutella (http://gnutella.wego.com) are pioneering new models of peer-to-peer commerce. Linux, the operating system that rivals Microsoft Windows, is another example of the power of mutual exchange. It was developed by a network of individual programmers around the world, who continuously refined and updated the basic software, most of them working for nothing.

The challenge is to help these mutual-style networks embrace the wider issues that affect their members. That was the pattern of unions and friendly societies in the 19th century – they moved from being internally-focused systems of exchange and organization (shop stewards running the day to day organization of the workforce) into movements addressing the more fundamental issues of ownership, poverty, voting rights and working conditions.

In the same way, it is possible to imagine web-enabled mutuals starting to address some of the issues of the ownership of knowledge and information in the 21st century. These issues are growing in significance as information and knowledge become more valuable. Napster, for example, has already faced legal challenges from music companies because it challenges traditional forms of copyright ownership. Such mutual systems could be an important counterbalance to the increasing concentration of patents and other valuable information in the hands of large corporations. This does not mean that network communities should be given free reign over all forms of information, just as unions were wrong to demand the nationalization of all industrial resources; but they have a place, and should be given legal support to ensure that new forms of mutualism are not unfairly suppressed.

Think distribution networks

Civic organizations need to recognize that they can use e-commerce technologies to fundamentally improve the way in which they operate. The internet does not just enable effective communications. The main impact of e-commerce has been in restructuring supply chains, from global hubs for car components to the direct ordering of personalized Dell computers. In contrast, the supply chains of the civic sector – grants, donations and volunteering – have remained largely untouched. They could be radically improved. Organizations such as Timebank show what can be achieved, but far more is possible.

  • Grant applications, assessment and monitoring could shift online almost completely. Today, most grant givers cannot even accept applications via email.
  • We may need an eGive to match eBay; a national system for reallocating unwanted furniture, books and clothing to people and communities either in the UK or in the developing world who would find them useful.

Encouraging the dot-coms to move into civics

There is also a need to encourage IT firms and e-businesses to get more involved with civic activities. Some already make large contributions; for example Hewlett-Packard plans to target US$1 billion in products and services to the developing world through its ‘e-inclusion’ initiative. However, few companies are actually integrating social and civic responsibility into their core businesses, as Forum for the Future's recent survey highlights (see Chapter 3).

This integration of social responsibility could be the most important contribution that e-commerce makes to civil society. Often, it will involve partnerships between dot-coms and public or voluntary groups. One example from the field of education is Think.com, a set of secure networks supported by the Oracle Corporation to enable school students to exchange ideas and produce their own online content. The package provides a software tool to support communication and content development, and control network access. Think.com already has several hundred thousand users in the UK. It is no doubt driven partly by Oracle's recognition that educational markets will be increasingly important to its business success, but it has created a set of social and educational networks that span the boundaries between the public, private and social sectors. Stimulating these partnerships, and then linking them effectively with core public service provision, such as healthcare and education, is a key challenge for government.

Partnerships could also be developed around the creation of new content on issues of public interest, whether educational curricula, information about gardening and horticulture, or evidence about how to improve public safety. Such development would depend on the creation of open networks with shared ownership of content, rather than the model of separate development and content ownership offered by the BBC.

Conclusion: building institutions, looking wider

This chapter has focused on the impact that e-technologies can have on social networks, and the organizational challenge of using them to create civic and social value. We have argued that a wholesale process of institutional development and reorganization is key to realizing their full potential.

However, while focusing on change at an institutional level, we also need to flag up a few macro factors that are influenced by technological change, and which will impact on the quality of social relationships. The success of small firms rests not only on the quality of their business plans but also on the macro-economic conditions under which they operate. In the same way, civic institutions are influenced by factors such as population, mobility, working hours, family structure, ethnic and cultural diversity, and levels of income inequality.

Over the last decade, different commentators have pinpointed a number of factors to explain an apparent decline in social capital. Robert Putnam focuses on the negative effects of television, suburbanization and working hours.17 Amitai Etzioni argues that communities have been undermined by too many individual rights. William Julius Wilson claims that poor urban areas have suffered from the flight of educated workers. Richard Sennett blames economic restructuring and flexible work patterns. All of these theories are important if we are to locate questions about social capital and new technology within a wider political context.

E-commerce is creating a space to think about these wider social forces. When economies undergo wholesale restructuring, the result is a combination of social disruption and renewal. In a period of dynamism and turbulence, we are able to reconsider the type of economy and society in which we want to live. That involves both innovation at the micro level – the focus of this chapter – and revisiting broader, older debates about how inclusive our society should be. Welcome to politics in the information age.

Notes and references

1 These elements often reinforce each other. For example, Paul Dekker of the Dutch Statistical Service has found that higher levels of volunteering tend to go with greater participation in civic debate.

2 See, for example, Norris, P (ed) (1999) Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance, Oxford

3 ‘Yahoo offers community building’, cnet news.com, August 18 1998.

4 Marther, J (1999) Creating Community Online, Durlacher Research Ltd, London (www.durlacher.com)

5 Marther, op cit

6 There is even a Jupp family research centre on the web.

7 Marther, op cit

8 Hampton, KN and Wellman, B (2000) ‘Examining Community in the Digital Neighbourhood: Early Results from Canada's Wired Suburb’ in Ishida, T and Isbister, K (eds) Digital Cities: Technologies, Experiments and Future Perspectives, Springer-Verlag, Heidelburg

9 The Guardian ‘Only the Lonely’ 2 February 2000

10 Cited in Burrows, R et al (2000) Virtual Community Care? Social Policy and the Emergence of Computer Mediated Social Support, ESRC Virtual Society? Programme. The questionnaire can be found at http://www.york.ac.uk/res/answers.htm:

11 Chao, J (1995) ‘Internet Pioneers Abandon World They Have Created’, Wall Street Journal, 7 June 1995, cited in Van Alstyne, M and Brynjolfsson, E Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyberbalkans? MIT Press, Massachusetts

12 The Guardian ‘Internet Isolates, Says Carey’, 24 February 2000

13 The Guardian ‘Can a Sense of Community Flourish in Cyberspace?’ 11 March 2000

14 Hampton, K N and Wellman, B, op cit, p207

15 Burt, E and Taylor, J (1999) Information and Communication Technologies: Reshaping the Voluntary Sector in the Information Age? Centre for the Study of Telematics and Governance, Glasgow Caledonian University

16 Flercher Research, cited in Internet Statistical Backgrounder, Citizens Online

17 Putnam estimates that changing patterns of work have created time and money pressures that account for 10 per cent of the decline in social capital. Suburbanization accounts for another 10 per cent decline, because people live further away from each other and their work, and spend more time commuting. Television accounts for a quarter of the decline, because it provides a more isolated form of entertainment. The majority of the rest of the decline he attributes to a rather vague change in the cultures of different generations. For example, those who lived through the Second World War appear to have established patterns of political and social engagement that their children have never learned.


by Madeleine Bunting

FromMadeleine Bunting
SubjectSurfing alone?

The internet's rapid expansion has been accompanied by an astonishingly ambitious ideology; the claim that it will transform the way you live and work. Much of the early excitement, cultivated by massive advertising campaigns, was designed to panic people into getting online. It is now subsiding and, in an internet hangover, our understanding of what will and what won't be revolutionized is sobering up.

In the midst of this, the impact of the net on social capital is one of the most complex questions. One thing is for sure: that this is not a revolution, not the dawn of an era of virtual community and cyber-relationships, as Ben Jupp and Tom Bentley's measured analysis illustrates. We are beginning to place the net more properly as an increment on earlier technological development. Probably not as revolutionary in its consequences for social capital as the telegraph or the railway, but on a par with television. It will become just one in a range of communication technologies: we will pick up the telephone, turn on the TV, email or text message depending on the kind of communication we want. The net will supplement rather than replace.

By way of example, take Jubilee 2000, the debt relief campaign, which offers an excellent illustration of how the net can be used by a civic organization. The net was crucial; the tiny London-based team emailed about 500 activists around the world, generating a global movement from a network of email links. Information could be shared, breaking down one of the most insidious aspects of the debt issue – namely, that activists in developing countries often have little information about the negotiations of major creditors in the Paris Club or at the International Monetary Fund, which have a huge impact on their own countries’ economies. Jubilee 2000’s success is similar to that of other global activist groups such as those seen in Prague in September 2000 and Seattle in November 1999, both of which relied on the net to plan their demonstrations. The great assets of the net for social capital are its twin capacities to gather and distribute information and to keep people connected.

But these examples also show the limitations of the net. No amount of emailing replaces the demonstrations, the public meetings, the letterwriting campaigns and the local neighbourhood groups. There is an energy in the personal experience of physically being with people which can't be generated on the net. In all the discussion of ‘effective communication’ we lose sight of the crucial importance of the process of communication. It is a dangerous omission because it is in the process – the experience of other people's commitment – that radical, transformative politics is possible. It is the process that can transform the participants themselves, developing their confidence, bringing to fruition unexpected talents to articulate and assert themselves.

Many grassroots activist organizations are well aware of this. The East London Community Organization (TELCO) puts its energies into ‘actions’, such as confronting the chief executive of a bank that has pulled all its branches out of an economically-depressed neighbourhood. The actual event is almost as important as the end result, as TELCO members gain experience and confidence in negotiating with decision-makers. It is this human element – hard to quantify, spontaneous, unexpected and transforming – which is absent from net civic culture, and will always limit its role to a supplementary one.

This is particularly true of neighbourhood social capital, much of which is built around children – playgroups and schools. The role the net can play in triggering this kind of traditional geographical community is very limited (although it may play a supportive role as a useful resource for gathering information). The net can never deliver the chance meetings, social interactions and networks that develop at the school gate or over the garden wall, and are inspired by the powerful emotional instinct for the welfare of children.

Children break down boundaries; toddlers don't understand the concept of strangers. Here, we come up against another limitation of the net. As soon as you have a child, your attitude to your local environment is transformed; suddenly you care passionately about the quality of playgrounds, the safety and cleanliness of streets. Much of this social capital revolves around women with childcaring responsibilities. With a child to care for, a woman's social life shifts from being orientated around the office to being orientated around the children. None of this meshes easily with the net, as anyone who has struggled to log on with a baby on their knee well knows.

Finally, I want to raise the huge question of whether the net contributes to wisdom – the quality of our relationships with others and with ourselves. Ours is a culture fascinated by communication technologies. We are gripped by a fantasy of communication omnipotence and instantaneity; I can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime in the world. But with that has come a fragmentation of attention span. When a smorgasbord of information and entertainment lies at the touch of a finger, how long can we concentrate on any one train of thought? Can we allow ourselves the time to reflect, or resolve an emotional conflict? If office workers check their email on average every five minutes, what does that do to their powers of concentration? Both the speed of the net, and the wealth of information it offers, militates against certain thought processes. We become good at multi-tasking and skim-reading, but less good at the kind of reflection and contemplation that is essential for true originality and emotional wisdom. Dazzled by the technology of communication, we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that technology is secondary to the content: ‘how’ is less important than ‘what’. The biggest danger of the net is its urgency; can we ringfence the internal space and silence essential for having something original and wise to communicate?