Ghost of Midnight

… about neighbors, community and Front Porch Forum

Bowling Alone but at least I have Facebook

Posted on Monday, January 14, 2008 by 6 comments

Cameron Marlow, research scientist at Facebook, argues today against Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis and the notion that more time spent commuting reduces a person’s social life. I think Cameron is suggesting that the more one commutes, the more time a person can spend on Facebook… and therefore said lucky soul will have a richer social life.

Perhaps I missed his point. It may be an MIT vs. Harvard thing. I don’t agree with all of Putnam’s conclusions, but I don’t doubt his data and the core of his analysis… Americans are less connected to the community where they live than they have in the past and this is not a good thing. I know that millions of kids (teens and 20s) and people in the tech industry use Facebook… but I just don’t see that as a replacement for a nation full of people richly engaged in local clubs, schools, churches, municipal government, civic organizations, sports, elections, charities, arts, etc.

Facebook is a game and local engagement is about building up the community in which you live. Apples and oranges.

Posted in: Community Building, Facebook, Front Porch Forum, social capital, Social Media, Social Networking


  1. Kevin Harris says:

    hi Michael – Cameron doesn’t need me to come to his defence… but you do misrepresent what he says:
    ‘Putnam’s data are extreme, but at a gut level the intuition seems right: commuting hurts your social life. The more you commute, the less time you have for friends.’

    What’s interesting to me is the implicit assumption sustained through the Putnam quote, Cameron’s post and yours, that commuting = car use. Of course, excessive solo car use is going to be bad for your social network, that’s common sense.

    But the sociability that I used to witness on the station platform and on the regular trains when I used to commute (fifteen miles into London and back), was manifestly not bad for people’s social networks. It was common to overhear near neighbours catching up, people talking about the town’s football (sorry, soccer) team or schools or local planning issues or whatever. Maybe this kind of commuting is still not as good for local relations as everyone being in their neighbourhood all day (I really wouldn’t be too sure about that!) but there’s a whole economic development argument hovering in the background of that one… šŸ˜‰

    And on the question of social change over time, Putnam’s argument is not strengthened by Brever’s Law which notes that over the course of recorded human history we have consistently spent about an hour a day travelling on average (it’s the distance travelled that increases, not the time we spend)…


  2. Michael says:

    Thanks Kevin. I agree… and I apologize to Cameron and others for pushing too far. He did, however, state it both ways… something like “Putnam’s point is crazy but at a gut level he may be right.” I focused on the first assertion.

    And I’ve commuted through my life via car, rail, bus, bike, foot and slipper (work from home)… and I agree with your point about socializing on public transit… walking too.

    The United States is so dominated by the single-occupant vehicle though… it’s a loaded issue. People go to great lengths to justify driving an SUV the size of a bus for hours a day with only themselves along for the ride. I thought I smelled another justification coming from Cameron’s post… again, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that.

    I don’t know about Brever’s Law… I’ll have to read up on it. Interesting. Of course, from a community perspective, it seems damning. Spending every work day 50 miles from your home community is very different than slowly commuting (and interacting with people along the way) to a workplace five miles away.

    Thanks again. -Michael

  3. Cathy Resmer says:

    This morning I took the bus to work. It increases my commuting time considerably, but I did get to talk with my friend Mike from the PO, who I wouldn’t otherwise have seen today. I actually ordered a book he recommended online when I got to work!

    And hey, I like Robert Putnam, and think he’s essentially correct about the erosion of our civic infrastructure, but I also think he hasn’t adequately measured the important ways in which people have created communities of interest online. Or the ways in which people use online tools to keep in touch. I think my family’s Flickr page has helped our far-flung family and friends stay in better touch.

    And my partner’s cousin’s blog definitely creates community with friends and family as well.

  4. Michael says:

    I read your cousins blog today and it’s a great example of your point. Goodness knows I’m glad for any tool that helps family bonds stay healthy and grow. And I love to stay in touch with old friends.

    It seems much of Web 2.0 is about helping people maintain contacts from the past vs. putting down deep and broad roots where we live.

    Perhaps in a culture with lots of people picking up and moving from place to place, this is a more important function than it would have been a couple generations ago.

  5. Kevin Harris says:

    Putnam can’t be blamed for not researching social media ten years ago but I think everyone interested in this theme should read Barbara Arneil’s book Diverse Communities just to fill out the picture. FWIW, my take on it was posted here –



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