Social capital, bonding, and bridging

I attended a talk tonight by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone , a study of the sharp decline of social capital over the last 30 years. The decline is measured as a loss of connectedness: people less willing to join organizations, to be civically involved, even to entertain friends at home.

When I read the book some months back, I wondered whether Putnam believes online community can help reverse the trend. Yes and no, it turns out. Although he doesn't seem deeply wired into online community, he made some interesting points about the Internet and social connectedness.

Face-to-face contact. Putnam's research shows that joining just one organization cuts your risk of dying, within the next year, by as much as quitting smoking. Social isolation is a huge health risk. Online community, for all its benefits and pleasures, is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction. I greatly enjoy virtual society, but it doesn't do much for my blood chemistry. To what degree will telepresence make online social life feel more like mammalian social life? It will be fascinating to watch this unfold as storage, bandwidth, and CPU proceed on their current trajectories.

Bonding vs. bridging. The Internet clearly does support lots of group formation. To the extent that it enables like minds to gather, the kind of social capital thus created is what Putnam calls bonding social capital. This is useful and important, but can be insular. Cross-fertilization may not occur. Groups may turn inward, recycling memes that don't evolve. The countervailing influence is bridging social capital which connects dissimilar groups. This stuff is harder to create, but also more valuable.

These terms provide another way to understand the function of what I call human supernodes and what Malcolm Gladwell calls Connectors (people like Lois Weisberg ). These people belong to many different groups, and they bridge among them. Tim O'Reilly is that kind of person. His conference in February brought together hackers, lawyers, politicians, biologists, and soldiers, and created lots of bridging social capital.

We have yet to see blogspace reach its full bridging potential. Radio Community Server will be part of the story. RSS is even more important, as a way of bridging among many kinds of tools and cultures.

I've watched the channelroll propagate to a number of Radio sites now. The subscription lists I see on other sites are, for the most part, very like mine. This tells me that there is more bonding than bridging going on at the moment. And it focuses my attention on the lists that are most different from mine. These, by definition, are bridges.

There are, of course, some promising bridging projects underway. At first, these mainly interconnect tech tribes. It gets really interesting when the bridges lead to other tribes -- of librarians, of academics, and I hope many others.

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