You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, an organization that studies the intersection of media, technology, and society, writes about social capital and democratic processes in a digital society.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turned to the American Red Cross for a variety of disaster relief services, such as running shelters and distributing food and water to evacuees. One of FEMA's requests was unexpected, and the Red Cross had to quickly assemble experts and tools to respond to it: FEMA asked the Red Cross to set up Internet kiosks and computer networks in shelters so that evacuees could go online.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Internet became a disaster lifeline for evacuees. Internet kiosks in shelters served as communications gateways through which individuals displaced by Katrina could attempt to find both services and family members. Websites set up by the Red Cross, other relief organizations, and the mainstream media shared online space with new sites such as Katrina Aftermath, an open “mobcast” created by online activist Andy Carvin, on which people displayed photos, missing person notices, personal stories, and commentary about Katrina. Carvin called the site a mobcast because he allowed anyone to post text, audio, images, and video on it. Built literally overnight by one man, the Katrina Aftermath site quickly became a resource for tens of thousands of people.¹

Katrina wreaked havoc but also revealed extraordinary changes taking place within a society increasingly connected by digital networks. At this moment in human history, individuals possess an unprecedented capacity to access, share, create, and apply information. Today's virtual, digital mediascape frees information from physical boundaries and facilitates the creation of what Robert Putnam calls social capital—the value of who we know and what we do with those relationships.² Until very recently, who we knew was primarily a factor of where we lived, but in a connected society of global nomads, our social capital has the capacity to expand through vast personal networks that span the globe.

Think of social capital as influence. The South Korean website OhmyNews, launched in 2000, lets anyone report the news, and 38,000 “citizen journalists” have since rocked a nation that had been dominated by conservative, tightly controlled commercial media, most notably a handful of national newspapers.³ Citizen journalists reporting for OhmyNews gave voice to and mobilized young and dissatisfied voters. Political observers credit OhmyNews with influencing the election victory of President Roh Moo-Hyun in February 2003.

As this example from South Korea demonstrates, the notion of informational dominance is obsolete, or less coherent, in a connected society. Individuals now exert unprecedented power and control over how and when they access information and with whom they share it. In this sense, the Internet is profoundly disruptive to the interests of any institution premised on power and control.

Built a decade ago around a set of computer networking standards that made it simple to hyperlink from any file on the network to any other, the Internet now enables financial transactions and human collaboration that in many respects have superseded communities and relationships built strictly around geography. Today, we see emerging communities formed around personal interests, as well as a continuing cycle of innovation that puts digital tools and capabilities into the hands of almost everyone.

These new tools allow for greater communication between individuals and communities online and generate new ways to create and measure “buzz”—discussions among those who set or influence trends, decisions, and public discourse. For a new breed of online publishers who take advantage of powerful and inexpensive Web log (i.e., blog) publishing tools, buzz—like social capital—is measured by the way ideas flow from and between different nodes on the network—in other words, by Web links.

Will technology lead us to an information utopia? The long-term consequences of living in a connected society are uncertain. Information overload may render the ever-expanding volume of data on the Web impenetrable and consequently ignored by most people. In addition, global communications networks are tools for everyone—including terrorists, who distribute execution videos through websites, and criminals, who steal personal data and exploit online security holes to commit fraud. Moreover, buzz alone may not be an adequate measure of efforts to prevent AIDS, malaria, or war.

We can only imagine and hope that as access to information expands, along with the capacity to create, share, and apply it, that so too will freedom, democracy, prosperity, and peace, and that, on a smaller scale, communications technology will enable solutions to social, health, eco-nomic, and human rights problems worldwide.

¹ The Katrina Aftermath website is
² Putman, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster. For more on social capital see
³ The OhmyNews English-language website is

Andrew Nachison
The Media Center
11690 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20191

‹ Previous Article | Table of Contents | Next Article ›

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project