Bruce Bimber

A Question: Friesen, the Internet, and Heretical Cultism

I recently received the following email and figured that since I was going to reply anyway, I might as well post about it and see if others have opinions they want to share.  Please give the questions below a read and weigh in if you have any thoughts about them.  I’d be interested for sure, and I imagine that Christopher (who is doing his PhD on matters related to this) would be too.

I recently read the book ‘Thy Kingdom Connected‘ by Dwight Friesen out of Mars Hill and wanted to get more insight on a theory developed in chapter 4 of the book ‘Connective Leaders’. On page 85 Friesen writes that in addition to allowing new and often fringe voices to the conversation (which very much follows Bruce Bimber’s theory of accelerated pluralism), the Internet also connects these groups beyond themselves, thus mediating their extreme, thereby keeping them from developing ‘totalitarian, heretical, cultish tone(s)’. This last bit here is quite an important development as it neatly extends Bimber’s theory of ‘accelerated pluralism’, at least as far as it pertains to religious organizations. I am wondering if you believe this to be more or less exclusive to religious groups and/or other bodies with high levels of social capital? Is so, why? If not, why not? Is the presence of face-to-face in-person contact/meet-ups (church going) important? And perhaps most importantly, why do you think this moderation takes place?


Bimber here is a reference to Bimber, Bruce. 1998. ‘The Internet and Political Transformation: Populism, Community and Accelerated Pluralism.’ Polity XXXI (1): 133-160.

For a quick version of this, see below, from the University of Iowa’s e-democracy pages:

The fragmentation of American political discourse into narrow interests preceded the Internet but the medium accelerates the tendency. As citizens turn away from conventional channels of political participation, will they substitute new political forms, or retreat into private spheres of atomized interests? What happens to serendipity and community, cross-cutting issues, and process?

Bimber calls this process “accelerated pluralism”, and it does seem to be a general characteristic of on-line life, political and otherwise. Just as urbanization affords exposure to a wider range of experiences but allows greater social segmentation, electronic media can further fragment civic society by microtargetting people in increasingly individualized affinity groups. In Norris’ words, “virtual democracy looks more like anarchy than ABC news.”

Can cyber-space complete the transformation from village to urban cliques, permitting disembodied interests to aggregate electronically?

Oh, the off-camera commentary was from my housemate Michelle Long, and the swing dance community I mentioned was .

I’d love to hear other thoughts on these questions.