May 24 2007

Book Short: Blogging Alone?

Book Short:  Blogging Alone?

I usually only blog about business books, but since I read Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam, because of its connection to the topic of Internet community and social media, I’ll record some thoughts about and from it here.

It’s an interesting read, although a little long.  Putnam’s basic thesis is that America’s social capital — the things that have brought us physically and emotionally together as a country throughout much of the 20th century such as church, voting, and participation in civic organizations like the PTA or the Elks Club — are all severely on the decline.  The reasons in Putnam’s view are television (you knew all those re-runs of The Brady Bunch would eventually catch up to you), suburban sprawl, two-career families, and “generational values,” which is Putnam’s way of saying things like people in their 60s all read newspapers more than people in their 50s, who all read newspapers more than people in their 40s, etc.  He believes the decline is leading to things like worse schools, less safe neighborhoods, and poorer health.

The book does a good job laying out the decline in social capital with some really interesting and somewhat stunning numbers, but the book’s biggest shortcoming is that Putnam doesn’t do the work to determine causation.  I buy that there’s a correlation between less voting and less safe neighborhoods, for example, but the book doesn’t convince me that A caused B as opposed to B causing A, or C causing both A and B.  What I really wanted at the end of the book was for Putnam to go mano-a-mano with the Freakonomics guy for a couple hours.  Preferably in those big fake sumo suits.

The book was published in 2000, so probably written from 1997-1999, and therefore its treatment of the Internet was a little dated — so I found myself wanting more on that topic since so much of the social media revolution on the Internet is post-2004.  His basic view of the Internet is that it is in fact a bright spot in the decline of community, but that it’s changing the nature of communities.  Now instead of chatting with whoever is bowling in the next lane over at the Tuesday night bowling league on Main Street, we are in an online discussion group with other people who own 1973 BMW 2002 series cars, preferably the turbo-charged ones.  So the micro-communities of the Internet circa 2000 are more egalitarian (“on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”), but more narrow as well around interests and values.

What has social media done to Putnam’s theories in the last seven or eight years?  How have things like blogging, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Photobucket changed our concept of community in America or in the world at large?  I welcome your comments on this and will write more about it in the future.