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April 27, 2009

Why isn’t Robert D. Putnam on Twitter?

In this post, Brenda Haines looks at how different social media tools have the potential to build different types of social capital …

Brenda HainesLet me be bold. Robert D. Putnam would like Twitter.

For the non-social-science geeks among our readership, Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone and Better Together, books that chronicle the rise, fall and potential rebirth of civic engagement in America. For his ground-breaking work, he was awarded the Skyette Prize in 2006, one of the highest honors a political scientist can earn.

Bowling Alone gets its title from a fact Dr. Putnam discovered in his research – that while overall games of bowling were up, membership in bowling leagues was down. It was yet another sign that people are withdrawing into their shells.

So, why do I think Dr. Putnam would like Twitter?

Dr. Putnam’s work is centered on the idea that the decline in civic engagement is based on a decline in social capital, the trust and the belief that if we ‘pay it forward’ the good will come back to us sometime down the road.

Social capital comes in two flavors:

  • Bonding social capital is exclusive. It’s the kind of trust that builds among a homogenous group. Putnam cites ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups and fashionable country clubs as examples.
  • Bridging social capital, on the other hand, is inclusive. It’s the kind of trust that builds when you bring together people who are very different from one another. Putnam cites the civil rights movement, youth service groups and ecumenical religious organizations as examples.

In 21st Century terms, Facebook builds bonding social capital while Twitter builds bridging social capital.

Generally, people who connect on Facebook know one another – from high school, college, work, etc.

Twitter is just the opposite. Every day, Twitter users strike up conversations with people they don’t know, based on shared interests, fields of study, work or volunteer passions. (For example, when searching for Dr. Putnam on Twitter, I got side-tracked chatting with Bartek Szafko, a guy from Poland who was also reading Bowling Alone.)

Over time, conversations by tweet do create a sense of trust and even a desire to meet in person – at conferences or Tweet-ups. In fact, I smiled when @mattmutz suggested bowling as the activity for the next #oshtweetup. We certainly won’t be bowling alone!

And, that is just one more reason I think Dr. Putnam would like Twitter.

– Brenda

PS – If Dr. Putnam IS on Twitter and I was simply unable to find him via search, please let me know!