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Bowling Alone vs. Here Comes Everybody: My how far we’ve come

In the year 2000, the literary rage was all about Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. Today (2008), the “must read” book is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Shirky’s premise is that with the development of advanced networking technologies (Web 2.0?), group formation and collaborative action are happening rapidly and abundantly (i.e. everybody is coming…). This comes a mere eight years after Putnam’s book. I wrote about Putnam extensively in an article published in a peer-reviewed (not open access, UGH) journal so for the purposes of making my argument about community and social capital, I’m copying what I wrote below, with irrelevant parts deleted (I don’t have to cite myself, do I?):

Based on analyses of large datasets and evidence from nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century, Putnam (2000) concludes that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has dropped dramatically, thus impoverishing our lives and communities. He documents that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We are even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. In other words, we are increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures.

Putnam (2000) offers a number of reasons for this collapse of community in America. Among those reasons, time pressure, especially on two-career families, is considered one of the primary suspects., changes in family structures mean more and more of us are living alone and conventional means to civic engagement are not designed around single and/or childless people. Also, suburban sprawl is an important contributor to the loss of community as we live further away from one another and further away from cultural and civic centers…

The next paragraph that I wrote is the kicker here:

Putnam (2000), in his writing about the collapse of community, does address digital communications and argues that electronic entertainment, especially television, has severely privatized our leisure time and, therefore, has become a major contributor to the collapse of community. However, Putnam (2000) also admits that the verdict on the Internet is still out. That is, it may be that the primary effect of the Internet will be to reinforce existing social networks, as the telephone has done, or the Internet might become a virtual substitute for them.

So, has the Internet reinforced existing social networks or has it become a virtual substitute for them. Or, perhaps, Putnam’s binary choice was false. Maybe the Internet has had a different effect on social networks? Either way, I would argue that a LOT has happened in just 8 years. I don’t quite yet know what it is that we are doing with our social networking technology, but we are NOT bowling alone anymore.

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