Back in 1997 I read Robert Putnam's classic "Bowling Alone" for the first time. In his original thesis, Putnam argues that society has frayed, with people going through the motions of sociability...without actually socializing:
Putnam warns that our stock of social capital - the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. [He] draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.
Perhaps the Web can help.
All it takes is one look at the blogging phenomenon to see that something is going on. It's not strange that an (apparently) opinionated loudmouth like myself blogs. It is strange to see normally shy or reserved people blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, etc., and I follow a wide range of people that fit this description.
This is one of the most intriguing things about the Web today. It is enabling speech that would normally be muted at best, nonexistent at worst.
Perhaps it's our way of sending a collective "message in a bottle," reminding the world that we're here and that, despite our individual shyness, we want to be heard and connect with others.
For example, my natural disposition is to expect that people have much better things to do than to hang out and/or talk with me, and hence to spend more time than I'd prefer alone. Through Twitter, however, I've come to know friends like @ZUrlocker, @p1lonn, and even my neighbor @bryce much better, and have grown more confident that they actually want to talk to me offline, because of our conversations online. (Guys, don't burst this bubble! :-)
In this way, Facebook and its ilk may actually help us to "bowl together," rather than alone.
It's not about the sheer number of "friends" that one can accumulate online, but rather the basic communication that increasingly takes place online, rather than offline, that makes the Web a unifying force, helping us to find just a few of the "hundred billion castaways looking for a home."