A 19th century lesson about the Internet and journalism

Back in the early 1800s a young French writer wrote some observations on the character of American society that I think have something to tell us about how journalists and newspapers should use the Internet.

The writer was Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville, and he wrote Democracy in America, a remarkably clear and astute commentary on the nature of American society.

Consider the era. Most of Europe was ruled by coalitions consisting of aristocratic families, monarchs, and the Roman Catholic church. The French revolution had ended disastrously, as most revolutions do. The unfolding apparent success of the American experiment was no mere curiosity.

De Tocqueville was looking for lessons, and he sought them by using the tools of the reporter. He traveled, he visited, and he interviewed hundreds of Americans.

Occasionally a newspaper journalist will write something arrogant and stupid about the blogosphere today. Such writers should read de Tocqueville carefully. His frank account of the failings of the press, and his carefully hedged defense of freedom of expression, might help one or two newspaper columnists understand that bloggers ultimately are part of the fraternity and not the enemy.

But the parts that I find most compelling have to do with the process of association.

De Tocqueville found the United States to be populated by joiners -- people who spontaneously associated in various types of clubs and groups, formal and informal, as their first response to any sort of challenge.

"If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare and the circulation of vehicles is hindered," he wrote, "the neighbors immediately form themselves into a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to a pre-existing authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned."

In other words, when faced with a problem, Americans get together in groups and solve it. But it's not just about problem-solving; it's about everything.

In his second volume: "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."

The reason I find all of this interesting and germane to the question of how journalists should use the Internet is simple: I think the ultimate product of journalism is a political product.

By informing, we empower individuals to take an active and participatory role in defining our collective future. Our real product is not the newspaper or the website or the corporate profit margin, but rather a democratic society that works.

If that is our actual goal, how should we use the Internet?

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam cites de Tocqueville and the American practice of forming associations in Bowling Alone, his landmark book on "the collapse and revival of the American community."

Putnam documents a decline in our tendency to form and join associations, and correlates that with a number of depressing statistics including the decline of interest in, and readership of, newspapers. Journalism is part of community, drawing from and contributing to the process.

Democracy works when people have a strong enough web of trust that they are able to work together, and when people have faith that their own actions can make a difference.

Both our trust and our faith are endangered by an array of powerful forces as diverse as entertainment television, the automobile, and the cynical political consultant who seeks to divide us in order that his clients may conquer. As we withdraw from the process of association and pull back from civic life, we suffer both individual and collective setbacks.

But if we understand that as journalists we are participants in this process, and not mere observers (or victims), we may find clues that lead us to an answer to my question.

Print journalists tend to look at the Internet as a publishing platform, a distribution channel that they should adopt only on the principle that "readers" should be able to get "news" in any form they might prefer.

But that misses the salient characteristic of the Internet. It is a network in which all nodes are created equal, and endowed by their creators with with the potential to contribute and participate as well as consume.

This democratizes and transforms journalism from an institution belonging to persons of rank ("professionals") to one that is open to all, and that is disruptive. But it also creates opportunity if we recognize that our goal should be an informed and engaged democratic society that works.

By convening, by leading and facilitating conversational processes, we can feed and reinvigorate the American habit of association that de Tocqueville saw in the 1830s. We can help rebuild the "social capital" that Putnam describes as declining.

But to do this, we have to not only rethink our jobs and recognize the constructive role we play in community. We also must confront some fears. These include fear of technology, fear of our own inadequate skill sets, fear of opinion, and ultimately fear of the "people formerly known as the audience."

And we need to understand the big value of small talk.

There are many ways to fail when convening community, whether online or off.

The abandoned garden represents one kind of failure. A newspaper launches a forum or adds commenting capabilities to its website with no statement of principle, no aspirations other than adding some cheap pageviews, no leadership, no management, and often no rules. The result is chaos and damage.

But the opposite also is possible. Diving into the deep end of the social capital pool also can lead to failure. An empty forum and a failed "citizen journalism" project are as forlorn as an empty restaurant.

To succeed we need, as de Tocqueville described, both the "enormous" and the "diminutive."

Human beings naturally exchange meaningless pleasantries about the weather before engaging in serious conversation. When we seek to build community online, we have to recognize that the small interactions are how we establish the social norms and the trust relationships that can open the door to productive and serious conversation.

The Saguaro Seminar prescribes "150 things you can do to build social capital." Some of them are very small actions. I particularly like "ask neighbors for help and reciprocate." Borrow a shovel, then return it. You've done something very small that can transform a relationship.

Now apply that to the Internet. And heed de Tocqueville's words:

"In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made. ... If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased."