Fifteen years ago I was at a conference of community foundations and had the opportunity to participate in a discussion session with Dr. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University. Putnam was there to talk with us about the loss of social capital in the United States.
Think of social capital as the relationships, shared values and common understanding which builds trust and enables a group of people to work together. Social capital is the glue that binds individuals together into a community. Putnam argued that over the last century, social capital had been diminishing.
As a field, community foundations consider the building of social capital as central to our reason for being. At the Door County Community Foundation, we strive to strengthen community because the only way to solve society’s most intractable problems is by working together. Putnam’s arguments were alarming and as a result, community foundations from across the nation partnered with Putnam and underwrote more detailed research in their respective communities.
Putnam’s expanded research only reinforced his thesis. Community groups like the Moose Lodge and Elks Lodge were disbanding. Church attendance was down. Membership in service clubs like the Kiwanis and Optimists were shrinking. Fewer people were joining parent-teacher organizations. Even simple things such as hosting a dinner party for friends was on the dramatic decline. Across the board, both the formal and informal ties that join us together were unraveling.
Putnam eventually summarized his research in his landmark book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book’s title comes from the fact that while Americans are bowling as much as ever, far fewer of us now join bowling leagues. Instead, we go bowling alone.
Of course, a lot has changed in how people build community since Putnam published his groundbreaking book. The most robust online social network, Facebook, didn’t exist at the time.
In that discussion of 15 years ago, someone asked Putnam what impact this new thing called the World Wide Web would have on social capital. I still recall Putnam’s simple response, which in retrospect, almost seems prophetic. Putnam said that we don’t yet know if the internet will be more like a telephone or a television.
Putnam argued that for the most part, the telephone has become a great tool to enhance relationships between people. It fosters communication and that helps build the emotional connections that bind us to one another. Ultimately, a telephone is an extension of relationships we have in the real world. A telephone builds social capital because it strengthens links between people.
According to Putnam, television has had the opposite effect. We build emotional connections with the people on television as we watch their stories, but that relationship is not reciprocated. We can become so immersed in the world we see on the screen that we isolate ourselves from friends and neighbors in the real world. A television destroys social capital because it fools us with the illusion of relationships and that can discourage us from seeking out human connections in the real world.
Fifteen years ago, we did not yet know whether the internet would be more like a telephone or a television. Today, I suspect that the answer depends on how you use it.
When used as a telephone, Facebook is a wonderful way to build social capital. It allows people to share their joys and concerns with each other, fostering closer relationships which can carry over into the real world.
I’ve learned of a casual acquaintance’s engagement on Facebook which caused me to send a card by mail. That led to a wonderful conversation and a better friendship between us in the real world. Facebook has helped me keep in touch with family and old classmates, which makes it all the easier for us to reconnect when we visit one another. Once when my wife fell, she posted a comment about it on Facebook while waiting in the emergency room. A friend saw it and showed up a few minutes later with ice cream just to bring us a little joy.
When used as a television, however, Facebook undermines social capital. Some people build elaborate online social networks with people they have never met, and will never meet, in the real world. That gives the illusion of intimacy, but is a poor replacement for it if our interactions are never face to face, but rather face to computer screen.
Online networks like Facebook can also become an obsession to the exclusion of those right around us. When we’re out with friends for dinner, too many of us (myself included) are guilty of staring at our smartphones rather than fully engaging with those around us in the real world.
When links in the virtual world begin to interfere with the relationships you have with people right around you, you’re undermining social capital. More importantly, you’re also losing a fundamental part of what makes life truly joyful – the time we share with our friends and family.
More than half of all Americans use Facebook and nearly one out of every four people on the planet participate in some form of an online social network. You can use it as an enriching experience that extends your real world relationships. Or it can be a distraction that undermines your ability to connect with those in the world around you.
So how do you use Facebook? As a telephone or a television?
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on November 6, 2014.