Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Community and Internet -- Friend or Foe?

American community is in decline, according to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.

Not one to just sit around while my community declines, I have taken action: I am blogging about social networks and community building. I am e-mailing colleagues with similar interests. I am downloading pdf files and reading all kinds of papers about social capital. And a couple weeks ago I joined a worldwide virtual community (or VC) filled with debates about social networks and community in the Internet Age.

Community building is hard work! Staring into my computer screen all day is wrecking my vision, and I can feel carpal tunnel setting in. Does anyone know any good blogs on these topics?

Yes, it has crossed my mind that just maybe the Internet is not an entirely constructive force driving the pulse of American community. Looking for informed opinions on this topic, fittingly enough I turned to an online virtual community. As I stumbled into the realm of disembodied electronic strangers (for I am new to this VC) the idea that the Internet could help build community felt like a sick joke.

How surprised I was to discover encouraging news. "Being Wired Encourages Human Contact," writes sociologist Keith Hampton in the Spring 2004 issue of MIT Spectrum:

The big findings, [Hampton] says, are that contact leads to contact. "If we have contact online, we'll have more contact offline, and the opposite tends to be true as well," Hampton says. "People generally don't use just one medium or the other, and e-mail certainly doesn't lead to a decrease in the size of our social circles. In fact, communicating on the Internet can increase our interactions by affording new types of relationships, for example, by helping us get to know our neighbors when we otherwise might never have."

The short article goes on to explain the interesting neighborhood studies that led to Hampton's conclusions. To stay abreast of Hampton's work, check out his blog.

So (getting back to the title of today's post) are community and the Internet friend or foe? Hampton gives us good reason to say they may be friends, and certainly they are not mortal enemies.

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