Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bowling Alone

Bowling Alone A blog post from Tris pushed me to read Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. It was an easy sell. The central concept is something I've been thinking about a lot over the past few years:
"...single-stranded, surf-by interactions are gradually replacing dense, multistranded well-exercised bonds. More of our social connectedness is one shot, special purpose, and self-oriented ... communities of limited liability or personal communities."
Although Putnam's work has received some justified criticisms, it struck a chord on me. Bowling Alone is about the decline in social capital in the USA during the 29th century. Putnam is a pre-internet scholar and writing in the 1990's, hardly touches on the online world, but presents a persuasive case as to why the Internet is a symptom rather than a cause of declining social capital.

Most significantly, Putman distinguishes between bonding capital (links between homogeneous groups) and bridging capital (links between heterogeneous groups). This is the concept that interests me most because it is most relevant to the work I have been doing in the last few years. In summary, the Internet can adequately support bonding capital but is ineffective in fostering the rather more important bridging capital. This because obvious to me with the failure of Small Worlds, and more recently with the impending failure of SciReader.

Putnam offers a few suggested answers to the problems of social decline. Unfortunately, they are mostly of the Don't start from here variety. His calls to "fix America by 2010" ... didn't happen. Nevertheless, it's hard to disagree with much in this powerful book. And I now have a reading list for the next few months.

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