A couple of days ago, I voiced a little suspicion about the many new “social software” devices and applications that make forming connections so easy. Today I want to amend that.
I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), an exploration of the ways new technology allows us to form groups without the conventional barriers of distance, resources, or management. I suspected that, when people can make online connections that seem to satisfy their needs and that are low cost (in time and money), they will more often forgo local, face-to-face connections (and group activity) that have a higher cost in time and interpersonal friction.
Inspired by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), a modern classic on America’s loss of social capital, three men created an online tool to help people increase the number of their local connections. They realized that people had difficulty making face-to-face, interpersonal connections in part because of suburbanization (greater distance) and the two-earner household norm (less time). They assumed that people would not be content with new online “communities” — so they created Meetup.com. It allows people to find others of similar interest locally. People need only to sign up and enter a few interests, and they can see others of similar interest within a certain radius. Once a Meetup group is established, Meetup.com can easily send e-mails to members about future meetings.
As Shirky points out, most groups fail: they never reach critical mass. Fortunately, the ease of Meetup.com has made the transaction costs of trying to form new groups practically nil. As a result, people make more attempts, and many find success.
There are currently 13 Meetup groups in Fairbanks. The 74 Ron Paul supporters seem to be doing well, though I feel a little sorry for the two people in the singles group, especially for the one who attended last Saturday’s mixer.
I registered at Meetup.com with one of my interests and found that there’s someone else in the area with the same interest — unfortunately, his posted photo reminds me too much of the inappropriate yoga guy, so I’m a little wary of meeting him. Shame on me for having such a prejudice: what’s called “bridging” social capital is built by spending time with people not of your in-group. However, people will have prejudice — so why not just omit the stinking photo and give them a better chance to meet you?
Anyway, while there certainly are those who forgo the presence of flesh-and-blood human beings in order to spend more time “living” online, Shirky gives me hope that, for most people, such an existence isn’t enough. Dispite their bizarrely strong streak of individualism, Fairbanksans seems to have a real propensity for civic engagement. I have to believe that the new social software and tools will not isolate us, but bring us closer together. We’re that kind of people.