17 years ago, Dr. Robert Putnam suggested that America was losing the key to our past greatness. Specifically, he felt that we were losing "social capital" as communities built upon in-person social intercourse were being replaced by human islands isolated from each other by "individualizing" technology, such as TV, video games, and the internet. He (in)famously argued this case in his 1995 essay, which later became a full book in 2000, Bowling Alone.
Sometimes, it seems like Putnam may be right. As we spend more and more of our time plugged in and online, it's easy to feel less connected to the world outside... Especially in regards to the neighborhood just beyond one's own back yard. And when one thinks about the consequences of this disconnect, it becomes quite a scary thought...
But what if this isn't true? Earlier this month, there was huge uproar over SOPA and PIPA that led several internet communities to "strike back" and essentially force Congress to drop the (supposed) anti-piracy legislation (at least for now). And in the wake of that, there was actually a very interesting discussion on MSNBC about the new forms of social capital started by Dr. Melissa Harris Perry.
Perhaps Putnam is wrong, and social capital in America really isn't dead. After all, look at Facebook. Look at Twitter. Look at YouTube, and UStream, and social gaming sites. Look more closely at the internet, and notice the new home of social capital.
I can personally attest to the value of this new social capital. In the last week, I had a problem at home mushroom into a personal crisis. What had been a water heater that busted was quickly turning into a fiasco that put my very home and personal freedom in jeopardy. I was losing a whole lot of sleep this past week, and I was seriously nearing my wit's end.
So what was I to do? Sure, I made some calls. I contacted family members, and a couple of them offered help. But ultimately, it was when I reached out to "my family" on Facebook that I found an outpouring of concern, support, and ultimately critical help that diffused this personal life crisis. (Yes, you know who you are... And you're always more than welcome to take a bow and remind me why you light up my life.) ;-)
Some may look at web sites like Facebook and YouTube and see a bunch of silly people doing silly things, but I see more than just that. I see life lines. I see kids at risk of suicide whose lives are saved. I see folks who may otherwise feel isolated in "Rural America" find communities that they never knew existed. And I see new forms of social capital emerge to breathe new life into our fragile democracy.
As you know, it's not that often that I turn this much to personal issues, but I do have a point here that will take us back to the bigger picture. In the next 9 months, we'll probably hear from plenty of big media pundits about how new technology changes the dynamics of this upcoming election. The Nevada GOP finally did something right in agreeing to post caucus results on Twitter. Campaigns will be relying more on YouTube to release "viral videos" that allow for less expensive advertising. And volunteers will be corralled more via sophisticated social media venues, like the platform emerging at President Obama's web site, in a more effective manner than ever once just imaginable.
However, there's more. There's far more value to social media and the reemergence of social capital than most had originally thought. Perhaps instead of dividing and isolating us, new technology is allowing us to build new communities and rediscover the value of civic engagement. And perhaps instead of worrying about how the internet is making us lose what we liked about our country, we can use the power of the internet to make our country even better.