Is Online Social Media a Product of American Civic Engagement Traditions? - by Asa Mazor-Freedman

Is Online Social Media a Product of American Civic Engagement Traditions? - by Asa Mazor-Freedman

Though it is infrequently recognized, the Internet is not an entirely new, alien element introduced to civil society; it is shaped by the culture that created it. The most widely used online social media networks around the globe, including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Snapchat, were founded and incubated in the United States. Did America’s civic engagement tradition contribute to this development? This paper discusses that question: are online social media networks a result of the American civic engagement traditions observed by de Tocqueville, Putnam and Skocpol?

In 1831 de Tocqueville identified and characterized an early American civic tradition. He employs the English civic tradition for comparison:

The English often perform great things singly, whereas the Americans form associations for the smallest undertakings. It is evident that the former people consider association as a powerful means of action, but the latter seem to regard it as the only means they have of acting. (de Tocqueville, 231)

The American civic engagement tradition according to de Tocqueville was thus a vital one, if not one he vaguely resents for its vitality - he seems to appreciate individual action more than collective action of the sort he witnessed in American political and civil society (de Tocqueville 123). De Tocqueville also gives an explanation of the genesis of this phenomenon: that democracy has produced a level of equality that makes each individual “independent and feeble,” thereby necessitating strong organizations to accomplish civic goals (de Tocqueville 231). The range of these goals, and the full scope of activities that de Tocqueville considers, is immense. As he remarks, Americans “have not only commercial and manufacturing companies […] but associations of a thousand other kinds, – religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive” (de Tocqueville 230). This tradition is not only a product of democracy, but also a support for it; the American culture of civic collective action strengthens political collective action as well (de Tocqueville 239). The early American civic engagement tradition identified by de Tocqueville is thus potent and crucial to the way in which Americans sought to accomplish their political and collective goals in the early nineteenth century.

Later writers such as Putnam and Skocpol characterize the evolution of this tradition into and beyond the industrial age. Putnam argues that the idyllic collectivism in de Tocqueville’s observations is vanishing as a result of women in the workforce and new technology, among other factors (Putnam 7). On these two points, Skocpol accords; she also says that calls for inclusiveness and newfound recognition of racist practices hit civic organizations and social groups “like a tornado” and new technologies like “computerized direct-mail” reorganized collective action groups into forms which were more effective in accomplishing their political goals, but less effective in fostering social capital (Skocpol 6). Skocpol refrains, however, from illustrating this change as negatively as Putnam does in stating that “the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined” (Putnam 1). For Skocpol, it is possible civic engagement is readjusting, both with desirable and undesirable consequences. These authors observe changes in the form of American civic engagement since midcentury, but differ on its consequences.

In many ways, modern social media engagement outwardly resembles the sort of civic engagement identified by de Tocqueville, Putnam, and Skocpol, and therefore would appear to be a product of this tradition. First, and not least importantly, they are American; and arose as a reflection of American culture. However, given that so many technology companies emerged in the United States, a phenomenon that is not highly linked to civic engagement traditions, there is reason to doubt that this is relevant. Second, in Facebook “groups,” for instance, people join collectively to both discuss issues and take action. The Facebook “events” feature has also been the main method of disseminating information on protests, boycotts, and other collective political actions, including the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, which organized approximately four and a half million individual actors. This resembles de Tocqueville’s observations of collective action in the preindustrial United States, albeit via different technology. Thirdly, Technology, as Skocpol acknowledges, changes the fabric of social organization in a society (Skocpol 2004, 9), and these organizations reflect that claim. As a result of this technological shift, social networks return to an older civic pattern Skocpol notes: individuals “speaking with” each other, not “speaking for” each other (Skocpol 2004, 7). On the whole, then, new social media networks resemble old forms of civic engagement, and in the ways that they differ, they do so according to patterns already recognized by these authors as relevant to the civic engagement tradition.

However, statistics on the global dissemination of Facebook, the largest social media network, evidence that both a uniquely American civic engagement and civic engagement traditions in general have little relationship to global usage of social media.

The information here points more to a culture of civic engagement across the British-colonized world than a distinctly American one. Of all the countries identified, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom have the highest percentage of their populations on Facebook. Canada, in fact, has a larger percentage of the population involved in social media than the United States. Though de Tocqueville mostly acknowledges the exceptionalism of American civic engagement, he does note that “the right of association was imported from England,” and that country maintains its own history of civic engagement as well (de Tocqueville, 106). That could not only be the basis of the United States’ strong associations, but also the basis of other English-speaking countries’ high participation in social media. Therefore, the civic engagement tradition relevant here may not be an American one.

However, other elements of the data suggest that any form of civic engagement itself may not be critical to the popularity of Facebook. One aspect of this is that Germany and France had widely different civic participation traditions, but both of these countries as well as Spain, Italy and Brazil had very little difference between them in their number of Facebook members per capita. Germany had a notably active civic society in the late Imperial period and during the Weimar regime. These varied as widely as exercise groups, nudist societies, and far-right militias. Even today, the plentitude of local interest groups remains a fixture of German culture. France, as de Tocqueville says explicitly, was shaped by a high degree of “centralization,” which diminished the emergence of geographically disparate organizations (de Tocqueville, 102). France and Germany have palpably different traditions of civic engagement, but their participation on Facebook differed by only two tenths of a percentage point. Countries as culturally diverse as Spain, Italy, and Brazil were no greater than two percentage points less present on Facebook than Germany and France. The dissemination of Facebook into different countries thus does not evidence roots in any tradition of civic participation at all, much less one that is unique to the United States.

Alternatively, this Facebook usage data could be explained in a way that does not rule the contribution of American civic engagement traditions. Though the United States does not have the highest per capita Facebook usage among these countries (Canada does), its real population figures created a far larger user base than the other countries on this list until May 2016, when it was overtaken by India. For the majority of Facebook’s lifespan, all but the past ten months, the United States was central; it was the predominant core of this social network. Facebook members from other countries would have been more likely to join if they knew Americans. Therefore, countries with greater social ties to the United States could have developed a larger presence on Facebook whether or not domestic civic engagement traditions were particularly important. This explains the predominance of Facebook in English-speaking countries, then Germany & France, then Southern Europe, then some of America’s largest trading partners. The data does not necessarily disprove that Facebook developed as a result of America’s civic engagement tradition.

If this discussion could yield more conclusive proof that the American civic engagement tradition fed the development of social networks that now exist around the globe, the data would not disprove it, but drawing any satisfactory answer on that is perhaps prohibitively difficult. One can trace the history and show similarities between social networks and the American civic tradition, but this is not conclusive. As a result, there is no clear answer to whether or not American civic traditions influenced the emergence, growth and development of global online social media networks.

This question, whether or not social media networks like Facebook are products of the American civic organization tradition that de Tocqueville identifies, impacts the relevance of these authors’ diagnoses of modern civic engagement in the United States. If Facebook and other social networks are indeed products of the United States’ civic organization tradition, then Putnam’s assertion that American civic vitality is declining requires reassessment for the digital age. Putnam and Skocpol’s claim that American civic organization is losing its connection to its grassroots in favor of centralized “mailing list” membership groups is less accurate, as Facebook groups do not fit this characterization; they are a more loosely organized amalgamation of individual actors that, together, are capable of both civic engagement online and mass action such as the Women’s March (Skocpol 2004, 7). It also faces different deficiencies than older groups, such as an even more potent capacity to insulate individuals from divergent viewpoints that Putnam valued so highly in “bowling teams” (Putnam, 4). Understanding whether or not social media is a product of this tradition, then, is crucial to drawing de Tocqueville, Putnam, and Skocpol’s observations into a modern context, and therefore is an important question to address in studying these texts.



1. Pressman, Jeremy “Crowd Estimates, 1.21.2017.” Google Drive. January 2017. Accessed March 9, 2017. 

2. The numbers used to analyze Facebook activity around the globe were derived as follows.  Facebook Users: “Leading countries based on number of Facebook users as of May 2016 (in millions).” Statista. May, 2016. Accessed March 9, 2017. National Populations: “Country Comparison: Population.” CIA World Factbook. Accessed March 8, 2017.


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