26 January 2006

Bowling Online, or Putnam Unglued

Everybody and her brother is yakking about the latest Pew Internet & American Life Project report, The Strength of Internet Ties [pdf], that has just been released. The report's main researchers, Jeffrey Boase and Barry Wellman, both from University of Toronto, explain,
The internet and email play an important role in maintaining these dispersed social networks. Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we find that the internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters. With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet. The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help.
This is an important finding, as it lays to rest the alarmist myth created by Bowling Alone's author, Robert Putnam, that electronic communications were weaking "social capital" the glue, if you will, that holds together societies. In fact, the report finds, "Internet users have somewhat larger social networks than non-users. The median size of an American’s network of core and significant ties is 35. For internet users, the median network size is 37; for non-users it is 30."As significant as is this new study, it - like Putnam's examination of bowling, picnics and card games - looks at the figures and content of Internet usage - how email is used, how people use the Internet to assist in decision-making, how people use 'net connections to seek support for medical conditions, and so forth. What is important to realize is that the awareness that these changes in content or use are indications of a fundamental restructuring in the psycho-social mechanisms of interpersonal engagement, and signal a similar restructuring in the basic institutions of society. If one looks closely, evidence of these restructurings become evident - but it takes some close examination and thoughtfulness about things that are easily dismissed.

In pursuit of my research on the future of corporations, I've been reading some stuff from the late 1960s and 1970s on organizational effectiveness. I find it remarkable to think about how sure management scholars and researchers were that the corporation was an individual, well-definable entity - with inputs (suppliers, investors), process (the organization itself), and outputs (customers). Of course there was acknowledgement of an "environment" of competitors, industries and markets, but all could be known through looking at the individual, relatively self-contained, local entity.

The Pew report finds empirical evidence that such is not the case with regard to individuals - people have become globalized as much as the contemporary business world. Indeed, I would suggest that people who experience UCaPP are actually more globalized than their business counterparts, because the latter are far more aware of their geo-located constraints, and hampered by their Tayloristic grounds. This, of course, leaves much fertile ground for the researcher.
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