I was a senior in high school the year that Lord of the Flies came out in paperback, and I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who decided that our class should include the book in its curriculum for the year. Before we began she read us a long and tedious essay that William Golding had published, most of which had almost no impact on any of us. However, Golding did end the essay on an intriguing note. I cannot remember the exact words; but, invoking Pontius Pilate, Golding wrote something like, "The fool ends a discussion by asking, 'What is truth?' The wise man uses the question to begin the discussion."
In retrospect this is just the sort of thing that appeals to a high school mind that grasps slogans more readily than concepts and theories. (Lord knows, there are enough of those slogans in Lord of the Flies!) Nevertheless, the underlying principle reminds me of just what it is that aggravates me so much in all of that Web 2.0 evangelism, particularly when the sloganeering turns to communities. That aggravation lies in the overwhelming flood of text, whether within the authoritarian disguise of a book cover or in the unedited blogosphere where confusion can be paraded as a virtue, that purports to deliver "answers" about the nature of communities and how that nature is thriving in the world the Internet has made. By Golding's principle the authors of these texts are all fools, because few, if any, discussions are being held based on first trying to identify the right questions to ask about the impact of current technology on the nature of communities. This was driven home to me when I received a belated comment, from Kai-Uwe Hellman, to a post I wrote back in August in which I tried to lay out the basic principles of interaction rituals. Hellman shares my frustration with the high level of confusion within the "communicative traffic" (his phrase) about communities; and he wants to ask why that level of confusion is so high and, in a related vein, why there should be so much hype (his word choice) over a concept that is so poorly understood in the first place. He also wishes to ask about the validity of one of the fundamental propositions posed by Ferdinand Tönnies, that the very sense of community will be inevitably lost with the expansion of the modern market society (which I happen to see as the "manifest destiny" of the Internet). From this stance he does not see Erving Goffman as a key participant in the discussion, since interaction rituals have more to do with maintaining and sustaining communities but may not figure in their potential demise.
Honoring Golding's principle, I would like to add to this discussion without suggesting that it will be concluded with any answers. Regarding the Tönnies thesis, I have to confess that I shall have to do more reading before delving into his argument structure. Nevertheless, I should note here that I find it interesting (if not logically indicative) that Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" study of the decline of "social capital" in the United States, best known from his 2001 book but introduced in an essay written in 1995, seems to have fallen off the radar of public attention. Putnam did Golding one better: He began by collecting data. The data collection process was probably motivated by questions, probably along the lines of those inspired by Tönnies; but Putnam could then use the data to pose more specific questions. His effort to start a discussion was a noble one, but his voice has now been drowned out by the chaos of all those technology evangelists.
This raises Hellman's more serious questions about the investment of so much "communicative traffic" that does little more than advertise the confusion of the "traffickers?" Those last scare quotes may contain the seed of an answer that needs to be further cultivated, since I deliberately chose a noun whose primary connotation involves marketing narcotics and other illegal substances. It may well be that the behavior that Hellman is examining is a product of a "doubled-edged sword of addiction." One edge involves the addictive nature of Internet usage itself; and the other is that consumerism, in any setting, is also addictive. To the extent that addiction impedes judgment, we often encounter addicts who bubble over with the surface appearances of creative insights; but, when those insights are examined in the harsh light of sobriety, they are rife with fallacies and misperceptions. This is why the Kool-Aid now associated with Jonestown has become such a popular metaphor, since it captures so perfectly how destructive (even to the self) such thinking can be. In other words those who try to cultivate discussion around serious questions are impeded by those who traffic in confusion as a consequence of their addictions. Thus, the loss of community that Tönnies feared may emerge as a side-effect of a broader problem concerned with the loss of communication (which, in turn, would probably reflect back on Max Weber's concerns about the loss of meaning).