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Click here to create community spirit

by Brendan O'Neill, 14th June 2005

‘Social-networking sites are good for building up your contacts base, even, sometimes, for meeting people – but they cannot remake real communities.’ So begins Brendan O’Neill’s theory that internet sites that aim to bring us all together aren’t quite up to the job. Thousands of couchsurfers, netmums and bookcrossers would say otherwise!

Posted in: MediaMedia archive

25 July 2004

As online networks bring people face to face, surfing ceases to be a solitary pursuit. Brendan O’Neill wonders whether such friendships are real or merely an illusion.

It was my personal endeavour to contact as many of the world’s most interesting people and cultures as I possibly could.’ Casey Fenton, a 26-year-old web consultant based in Anchorage, Alaska, is passionate about travelling. Earlier this year, he launched www.couchsurfing.com, a networking site that puts like-minded travellers from around the world in contact with one another.

If you are prepared to provide accommodation for backpackers stopping off in your part of the world – whether a room, a bed or a couch, hence the name of the site – you sign up online and await the requests. In return, you can call upon Couchsurfers to return the favour next time you globe-trot. ‘Aldo from the Netherlands stayed with David in Philadelphia, and Vanessa is couchsurfing with folks in Thailand,’ says Fenton, naming some of those who have enjoyed the benefits.

Since the site was launched in January, 2,730 people have signed up, representing 1,200 cities in 76 countries and speaking a total of 250 languages. Some have become friends as well as mere providers of accommodation. Fenton speaks proudly of his ‘international network’. ‘The line between virtual and real is becoming blurred,’ he says.

Couchsurfing is one of a wave of ‘social networking’ sites intended to bring individuals together. The web is apparently no longer a sport for one, played by that infamous stereotype the internet geek, who conducts only virtual relationships and communicates with the world via e-mail or pronouncements on a blog. Networking sites aim to forge real connections with real people in real time – and sometimes even in the real world. Can such sites truly create new communities, or are they simply enabling random connections across cyberspace?

Some networking sites claim they can help visitors to make new friends, or at least contacts. Orkut.com, www.linkedin.com and www.zerodegrees.com are aimed at connecting people who may not know each other, but have friends or colleagues in common. You have to be invited to join such sites by an existing member, a friend, who thinks you will benefit from its social-network base. So, while not all the people on the site are friends, they are at least ‘friends of a friend’ – Foafs, to use the terminology – and are thus all connected by a few degrees of separation. The most established networking site, www.friendster.com, claims to have more than a million members.

Not so new are reunion sites, helping old buddies to hook up. The best known is www.friendsreunited.co.uk, where you can track down old schoolmates.

Others, though, have tried to reproduce the success story: www.forcesreunited.org.uk for ex-forces personnel, www.caravannersreunited.co.uk for old caravanning chums, www.skireunited.com for those keen to rekindle friendships from the slopes.

With increasing frequency, social-networking sites are being harnessed to build formidable networks in the real world. Supporters of Howard Dean built up huge momentum in the months and weeks prior to the Democrat primaries, exploiting www.meetup.com to spread the word about their presidential candidate. Meetup is a global website that encourages people with common interests to band together in their own area: 180,000 Americans enlisted to raise funds for Dean; on one ‘Dean Meetup Day’, in August last year, 30,000 of his supporters descended on restaurants, cafes and community centres around America to discuss tactics.

The Meetup nearest you is not always so successful, however. It often doesn’t happen, because too few people sign up or because they fail to appear on the day. In recent weeks, I have twice tried to attend a Meetup of atheists in London – one was cancelled because fewer than five members responded; as for the other, I found myself standing in the middle of a busy pub (the meeting point) without a self-declared unbeliever in sight.

Surfing the internet is often seen as an isolating experience, replacing the real world of friendships and communities with a virtual universe of chat rooms and message boards. Does the distinction between the world wide web and the real world become less pronounced when you can flirt, gossip, debate, build political campaigns, meet prospective partners and chat to Foafs online – or are we simply fantasising that the internet might somehow stem community breakdown elsewhere?

Ron Hornbaker, the founder of www.bookcrossing.com, says that networking sites show the true potential of the web. BookCrossing is a ‘global book club’ where members discuss and share books. They follow the three Rs – they read a good book, register it on BookCrossing, then release it for someone else by donating it to charity, leaving it on a park bench or ‘forgetting it in a coffee shop’. Having registered a book with the site, the member attaches a unique ID number and registration card inside the front cover, explaining BookCrossing’s mission and encouraging the new owner or finder of the book to visit the site to say where they found it, and what they thought. BookCrossing boasts 200,000 registered members, who are ‘freeing’ books around the world.

‘The internet has isolated individuals,’ Hornbaker says. ‘It has led them to believe that sending the occasional e-mail or text, or lurking in a chat room, can be a substitute for live community. BookCrossing brings a real, physical component of community to the table – these books are real things, they travel between real people, and sometimes those people meet in real life.’

BookCrossing may deal in tangible goods, but it is not a real-time reading circle where friends or like-minded individuals meet face to face. Indeed, the focus on random connections between random people – where a book is purposefully lost in the hope that whoever finds it will follow the instructions and visit the site – could be seen as a reproduction of the ‘isolating’ effect that the net has on surfers.

Some argue that the term social networking is a gloss for what the internet has always been – a network of millions of individuals who sometimes fleetingly engage with each other, but who are not necessarily developing real or real-time relationships. ‘The social-networking phenomenon puts quantity over quality,’ says James Woudhuysen, professor of innovation at De Montfort University and author of Cult IT. ‘In the business and IT world, where social networking is biggest, the emphasis is on making lots of contacts. You can have a network of thousands; you can have tens of thousands of Foafs. It is quite a self-serving exercise, where the idea is to build your network rather than make real friends.’

Woudhuysen argues that in seeking to make arbitrary and random connections between isolated individuals sitting in front of computer screens, networking sites are attempting to compensate for a weakened sense of cohesion between humans in the real world. ‘Many people have a sense that real-world communities are not what they used to be, so we look for evidence of new communities on the web,’ he says. ‘Visiting chat rooms, sending e-mails, swapping books – these get redefined as community. But real communities are built through common, shared experiences by people who work in the same place or live in the same locality.

Siobhan Freegard, a mother of three from Harrow, north London, set up www.netmums.com three years ago to help new mothers contact others in their town or city. ‘As far as mums are concerned, social networking is a fancy way of saying ‘making new friends’,’ she says. The site enables mums to share tips about baby-sitting services, toddler groups, child-rearing tactics and anything else on their minds.

Freegard founded the site with Sally Russell and Cathy Court, two mothers she met at her son’s playgroup. They shared ‘the common bond of having found the adjustment from career girl to mum difficult’.

‘It wasn’t intended to be anything more than a local site for my home town,’ she says, ‘but it filled a vacuum and took on a life of its own.’ Netmums now has 80 live local sites, with 30 in development, and plans to have 140 sites – covering most of the UK – by next year. Its 48,000 members all heard about Netmums by word of mouth.

The website encourages local involvement. ‘While local sites conform to the same basic template and are accessed through the central address, each also has its own separate personality. Much of the information comes from other local mums.’

For Freegard, social networking via the web is perfect for new mothers, who often find themselves isolated from their old workmates and sometimes even from family members. ‘Friendships were traditionally made in the town square, village green or local shop,’ she says. ‘Advice and support came from the extended family. These days, up to 60% of mums don’t see their extended family, and there is no physical centre to our community. How wonderful that the world wide web has started rebuilding old-fashioned communities.’

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.

About the author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of Spiked (www.spiked-online.com). Spiked is an online publication with the modest ambition of making history as well as reporting it. Based in London but talking to the world, spiked is entirely independent.