Bowling Alone, the Local Internet, and XBox Live

From Putnam, 1995:

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent … The broader social significance … lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.

Edupunk* that I am, I occasionally feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. I have this theory, shared by many, that the Local Internet can start to rebuild the local communities that national TV destroyed over the past 60 years.

And then I think I’ve got to join the struggle and use my knowledge to help fix this. And that’s what I feel I’ve been doing, in one way or another, for quite a few years now.

But occasionally I happen on something that is just *happening*, happening naturally and organically. Something that feels less like rolling rocks uphill and more like bodysurfing the revolution.

XBox Live is such a thing. Until recently I had no idea what this was. I mean, one hears the talk about Second Life, and about World of Warcraft — those efforts and their relation to culture have been dissected quite a bit by academia — themes of value, life building, construction of self and problem solving have been analyzed in these arenas.

But what no one ever mentions is XBox Live and Bowling Alone.

Put simply, here is what I discovered on XBox Live. I started out several weeks ago playing other people nationally that I didn’t know. Random people. I got bored. It was too Compuserve chat room circa 1984.

So I started to badger my friends with XBoxes to get online so I could play them. We got five local people together and broke into teams, playing at three different houses and having one of the most amusing nights in recent memory. We’re now looking at forming a league team together and taking on other teams, or challenging others locally.

And what I found out in the process is that to varying degrees this is how many people are using XBox Live. The kid across the street plays his school friends on XBox live. People friend people they know or invite them to join games they are in. Leagues form, teams are forged. The patter in the games is a combination of tactic talk (“He’s on the balcony — try going up the back stairs while I distract him with a grenade…”) and the regular social patter one hears during any group game.

There is nothing revolutionary about this to anybody doing it. Yet look closely and you’ll see that this is the Local Internet, the process of the Internet rebuilding what the Broadcast Era destroyed.

At the end of the original essay Bowling Alone, Putnam delves into technology’s relation to the erosion of social capital:

In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment. The same logic applies to the replacement of vaudeville by the movies and now of movies by the VCR. The new “virtual reality” helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?

The answer to that question, is no, not necessarily. In fact, writing in January of 1995, Putnam may have been marking the high water mark of technology’s power of separation and isolation, the last point where someone could talk about a virtual reality helmet without realizing that it gets awful lonely in that VR world if it’s not populated by people you know.

* I have chosen to spell “edupunk”, when used as a reference to a person, in lower-case. EDUPUNK the movement is, of course, in all caps, ala Jim Groom.

14 thoughts on “Bowling Alone, the Local Internet, and XBox Live

  1. What is revolutionary about it is that they do it, they dont talk about it.

    If you go bowling with your edupunk t-shirt on how many will get the joke? But if you just bowl, they might bowl with you.

    Nobody talks in public about real revolutions. They are too busy. And people are listening.

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