Back in 1995, Robert Putnam wrote an article, later expanding it to a book, called "Bowling Alone" (you can see more here: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html). Putnam observed that while more people were bowling, membership in bowling leagues was declining and, in general, fewer and fewer people were joining civic or social organizations. Putnam stated that "more of us are bowling, but we are bowling alone." He argued that this decline in engagement by people meant that we were forming fewer social bonds and engaging in less civic debate, dissipating what he termed our "social capital," the investment in relationships that made them work. This was generally bad for society, he concluded, and urged us all to come together before we all ended up in isolated little units.
While widely regarded as sage wisdom, I have always regarded it with deep suspicion. For one thing, it contradicted my life experiences. We used to go bowling in college. None of us ever "bowled alone." Rather, whenever a bunch of us at Colonial felt the urge, we'd pile into Tom Kinney's car and drive to the local bowling lane, followed possibly by "Denny's Olympics" and significant drinking.
In thinking about it, I decided that Putnam made a fundamental category by concluding that formal organizations and formal structure marked the development of social capital and were intrinsically necessary in its formation. Putnam, like many of his generation, seemed incapable of grasping that a new generation might develop significant social capital through less formal structures of inetraction that meshed better with our current set of socio-economic situation and the evolution of technology. [What is there about Babby Boomers as a class that makes them think they are the Platonic Archetype of humanity, and that we should all feel as they felt and have their modes of interaction and angst?] i began to postulate that we were, in fact, a transitional society. Those in the generation previous to the baby boomers grew up with particular means and mechanisms for developing social capital, strongly tied to ethnic identity, politics, and other externalities. The evolution of technology, shifting patterns of settlement (from primarily urban/rural to suburban), and constant change made these mechansims increasingly untenable. Sadly for the Boomers, however, they have proven a remarkably unadaptable bunch.
The subsequent generation (Gen X) developed different patterns of development of social capital, which accept a more transient and mobile lifestyle and increases in technology. To take but a simple example, we think nothing of making a long distance call to a friend. It is cheap. Until the mid-1980s, however, spending hours talking on the phone to friends long distance would have been a costly extravagence. Gen Y develops its own modalities for generation of socail capital.
Putnam's subsequent work, "Better Together," dismissed the idea that the internet fosters the development of social capital. Again, I was skeptical (especially since this contradicted my experience and made a fundamental catagory error by treating "Craig's List" as an online community. More to the point, these experiences ran counter to my personal and professional experience.
From my perspective, what Putnam now failed to understand was that the craving for autonomey and the ability to define the level of engagement and the user experience did not negate social capital. Or, more simply, people these days want to control what they can of their lives. Organized political parties, organized social clubs, that tell you what you must accept, how to interact, and when, are increasingly anathema to a generation that exists within a 24/7 society with no stability. Putnam, of course, would argue that the pain in the rear meetings of the Elks Lodge at 7:30 every Tuesday would provide that stability and it is the common investment that develops social capital. My response is, "that's nice, but at 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight, if I'm not at work, I'm helping my son do his homework, or maybe shopping for groceries, or maybe cooking for shabbos. And, if by some miracle I can clear myschedule for this week, there is absolutely no guarantee I can clear it for next week." If the only way I can develop social capital is by joining formal organizations and investing in their structrues, than forget it.
enter the internet. Suddenly, I can define the user experience. Live Journal is always here. If I chose to take part in a meme, I can do it when I become aware of it. If I wish to engage politically, I can do so. I no longer need to join an organizations that requires me to support a broad agenda. I can find trusted informants, issue fora, and ways to take action online. I can translate that energy into real world effects by using internet tools like meet up. For example, I may care deeply about an environmental issue. Old model requires me to join Green Peace or Sierra Club and allow them to set priorities and decisions. But no one likes that model anymore, because I don't support everything Green Peace or Sierra Club does, and they don't do what I think is important. But I can find other people who are interested only in green house gases. I can track information on this issue, find places to take action, and potential invest a huge amount of energy short term, when convenient for me, in such activity. I maintain this network even when I am not actively attending meetings via the internet and other technologies.
I have been trying to find time to write this up for almost a year now, since I gave the first version of this as a discussion at the Ford Foundation in February 2005 (on why funders trying to effect social change should fund small organizations and not just big national orgs.) Now, at last, PEW confirms in a study that the internet does generate social capital. You can read a story about it here. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4644666.stm
And the Pew Study here: http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/172/report_display.asp