Social capital, trust, and the purposes of online community

Robert Putnam 's data on social capital show that social connectedness in America was on the rise through most of the last century, until its precipitous decline beginning in the late 1960s. Why the decline? He blames television, urban redevelopment, single-parent households, two-career families, and other factors.

An equally interesting question: why the rise that preceded the decline? Putnam suggests that 100 years ago, there was a crisis of social connectedness like the one we are in now. Migration of agricultural workers to the industrial cities, and of European immigrants to America, badly disrupted social networks. In response, Americans invented social institutions -- bridge clubs, bowling leagues, men's and women's social clubs, the 4H (a government creation, in fact) -- and proceeded to join them at an increasing rate, until the trend suddenly reversed in the late 60s.

These once-popular social institutions were created, Putnam suggests, by people who sensed, or knew, that there was a critical deficiency of social capital. The institutions were designed to correct that deficiency.

If he's right, the flowering of online community that we see all around us may be part of a very large historical pattern. As a culture, we may be sensing a deficiency of social capital, and creating new institutions -- appropriate to our time and our technology -- to remedy the problem. Putnam's thesis may be read as a requirements specification for online communities.

A corollary to the sharp decline of social capital in our generation, by the way, is a sharp rise in the number of lawyers per capita. Fifty years ago, Americans thought that most people were trustworthy. Today most think the reverse. Lawyering flourishes, says Putnam, because it is the "production and sale of synthetic trust."

Interesting. For years I have interacted online with people I have never met face-to-face, and may never meet. Yet I trust them.

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