THE BLOG
04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends (and Facebook)

At the beginning of the semester, my American history professor asked us what we thought of social networking technology such as Facebook. One girl answered that she thought that such technological advances have made us more distant from one another. At first, this seems counterintuitive: Facebook, and other sites like it, have enabled us to keep in touch with a significantly larger number of people than would have been possible without it. Imagine, for example, trying to stay in touch with everyone you use Facebook to stay in touch with, but only with phone calls, letters, visits, and, perhaps, even instant messaging. Yet while we can now maintain relationships with a greater number of people, those relationships are in turn more superficial (how many of those "happy birthday" posts on your wall are the result of actual sentiment?).

What I found to be most significant about this answer, however, was the response from the class. When the professor asked everyone who agreed to raise their hand, the entire class, with only a few exceptions, did so. Obviously, this is no 'random sample' of American youth or even of college students. But to me it is telling of the mixed feelings that many young Americans have about the growing influence of technology in modern society.

These concerns are not unique to college students, either. The issue of what has been described of the atomization of American society has been the focus of numerous studies conducted by political scientists and sociologists, as well as religious figures and politicians. Each of these groups has their own explanations for why society, in their eyes, is "decaying": Robert Putnam puts the blame on the individualizing effect of technology (watching television, for example, is not a terribly social activity); the religious right blames the decreasing influence of religion; politicians lament the fact that our children are being "raised" by our television sets.

The question we must all ask ourselves is: is all of this worry actually called for? In the early twentieth century, many were concerned about the alienating effects of living in the city. A common concern was the breakdown of social ties as millions moved from small towns where everyone knew everyone to the anonymous city. Yet despite these concerns, social ties survived, changing their formative locus from the immediate neighborhood to the civil, social, and cultural activities engaged in by the inhabitants of cities.

In the nineteenth century, the advent of train travel was accompanied by concerns over the fact that travelers no longer engaged in lengthy discussions, choosing instead to read. The restructuring of Paris eliminated the street as a place of socialization. Yet social, cultural, and political ties have persisted.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Putnam points to the decreasing numbers of Americans who write letters to the editor, attend protests, and are members of political or civic organizations. Though, in my opinion, his book is one of the best examinations of American society of the twentieth century, it is exactly that: confined, at least in some respects, to the twentieth century. The popularization of the internet has fundamentally changed how American politics and society operate.

As many already know, in 2008, millions of American college students used websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and the Obama campaign site to raise millions of dollars, mobilize volunteers, and turn out the vote. Many other Americans used the power of the internet to raise millions of dollars on behalf of Republican primary candidate Ron Paul. Yet even before the 2008 elections, the power of the internet was clear: that the Drudge Report -- a conservative news site -- first broke the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s; the fact that the 2004 Dean campaign was largely powered by e-activism; and the rise of both the liberal and conservative blogosphere were all testaments to this fact.

But those using the internet as a political tool are not simply sitting in their basement expecting others to go vote, attend the rallies, or register voters. Rather, we have used it to spread the word about events and make American politics more accessible than it has ever been before. At no point before in American history has it been so easy to raise awareness of protests, clubs or their events, or other social, civic, and political activities.

It is a healthy and natural reaction to the increasing dominance of technology to be concerned about the possible dissolution of close social bonds -- but we must also remember that even as we make history with technology, we have faced many of these same crises before. As a student of history, these lessons have taught me at least one thing: technological progress is inevitable, and most technological progress will without a doubt have a significant impact upon human relations. But no matter how new technology may change the manifestations of human relations, it will never eliminate them. As uncomfortable as massive social change may make us, let us remember: we'll always have our friends.