Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” presented a haunting image when it was published in 2000. Although more Americans than ever were visiting bowling alleys, there was a decline in bowling league membership. Americans were losing their sense of community. 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’re even bowling alone.” He posited that social networks had value, which was measured as “social capital” and that America’s social capital was at risk.
To some extent, this was one of the final sociological perspectives before the great online social networking revolution that has changed the nature of social networks. There have been subsequent studies on “Social Capital in E-Communities” providing some excellent design principles for online community development. And to highlight how quickly this phenomenon has developed, Scott and Johnson’s 2005 paper cites Friendster, but not Facebook (which was only just taking off). Subsequent studies, such as the 2007 “The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites ” make up for that, looking closely at the positive role Facebook plays in developing social capital.
We are definitely changing as a society. I only need to look at my own behavior, the networks I have and the personal connections I’ve made via these networks — much of it just within the past six months. But I also see how quickly we move from one e-community to the next, trying LinkedIn, developing social networking skills on Facebook, networking with colleagues on Govloop, and there are others that I’ve tried and abandoned, or took one look at and stayed away. Even now, I see myself spending less time on Facebook and more time on Govloop. But at the same time I see so many new groups springing up on Govloop, compartmentalizing a generally cohesive community. I can’t keep up. There are so many groups, and the discussions don’t cross from one to the other. How many interesting discussions am I missing out on. How many people am I here with who are off in their own small groups.
I wonder whether the online community is starting out as a communal league, but ultimately we’ll end up going to the same social network in our group of one and blogging alone.