Thursday, June 5, 2014

Leather and Social Capital, 2014

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #496, June 5, 2014)

Your humble columnist, you may recall, is currently a student at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn. For a course titled “Ethics in the Age of the Internet” I wrote a paper concerning the Internet’s recent effects on democracy and community. (Heavy stuff, right?)

As I was writing that paper, of course, I was also applying the concepts I was discussing in it to the leather/BDSM/fetish community. Although I was pessimistic about the Internet’s effects on democracy as a whole, I was pleasantly surprised when I thought about the effects that the last decade’s technological innovations seem to be having on our community.

Return with me to 2005, when I published a column (Lavender #272, Oct. 28) titled “Leather and Social Capital.” According to Dr. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard who was featured in that column, social capital is defined as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”

In the “Leather and Social Capital” column, I discussed a description by Dr. Putnam of the way social connectedness had plummeted in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Among the factors Putnam blamed for the decline were television, suburbanization, and a decline in entertaining. Putnam also noted the decline of long-established social organizations, institutions and frameworks such as the American Legion and VFW. Putnam wondered what kinds of social organizations would evolve to fill the social needs that used to be filled by these organizations (or, alternatively, how organizations would re-invent themselves to stay relevant).

At that time Putnam believed the Internet might be one key to reestablishing connections among people. He predicted that the Internet would either evolve into a “super telephone,” which would help to keep us connected, or a “super television,” which would further isolate us. Putnam noted that “You don’t make friends over the telephone,” but rather that telephones are used to keep us connected to people we already know.

That was in 2005. In 2007 the iPhone was introduced, and compared to what had gone before it was certainly a “super telephone.” The iPhone combined a telephone, a camera, a touchscreen computer and an Internet connection in one pocket-sized device. Other smartphones followed, and they have revolutionized the multiple ways in which people communicate—not only voice and text messages, but also video chats, photographs and homemade movies delivered to one or multiple persons as soon as the images are captured. (And, contrary to what Putnam said above, you certainly can use any number of apps on your phone, including Grindr, to meet new people and make new friends as well.)

Smartphones can increase our sense of connection to people far away, but what about real-life, local connectedness? Facebook, which was opened to the public shortly after the “social capital” column was published in 2005, also could be considered part of that “super telephone” phenomenon (although smartphones also function as a “super televison”). In a breathtakingly short time, Facebook has become a popular piece of Internet infrastructure used for maintaining our connections to our social networks, both local and long-distance.

In the case of the Twin Cities leather community, Facebook has become one of the primary methods of publicizing real-life events where people actually show up in person and, like, you know, talk to each other face-to-face. Rather than replacing face-to-face social interaction and diluting community connections, Facebook is being used to facilitate face-to-face interaction and to strengthen community connections. I consider that a positive development.

There is also Fetlife, which debuted in 2008 and which has been called the “kinky Facebook.” But I think it’s interesting to note that a large group of local gay leathermen use Facebook rather than (or in addition to) a more specialized social-media platform like Fetlife. Even with the limitations imposed by Facebook’s terms of service, Facebook can be made kinky enough to be useful.

In 2005 I described a frequent topic of leather-community conversation: “What’s happening to our community? Why are traditional leather clubs graying, with few younger members in sight? Why is it harder to find contestants for leather contests? Why does it seem as if people don’t go out as often as they used to?” I am happy to report that the situation does not seem as dire in 2014, a time when younger people are actively building “social capital” by using new technologies to perpetuate, evolve and strengthen the leather/BDSM/fetish community.

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