Monday, February 4, 2008

Social Capital, and Website Design: How Can We Stop “Bowling Alone”

This piece is similar in intent to one posted on RSR's corporate web site, but is a bit more pointed.

Last week I had the opportunity to hear an executive for speak to retailers about what’s hot in web site design. Debbie Kristofferson talked quite extensively about’s most recent web site redesign and how important it was to create a sense of community. Wal-mart’s research revealed that community was best manifested by offering consumers the opportunity to write product reviews, and give loyal customers a voice on the site.

That's research into customer needs for community. On the employee side of the equation, sometimes it feels like 1984 has come, but 24 years late. Workforce management systems insure that hourly employees punch in at their solitary workstations, to gain a pathetic extra 10 minutes of "productivity" ostensibly lost when they punch in at a centralized time clock and the walk to their workstations, or heaven forbid, have a conversation with co-workers at the clock. Executives (myself included) carry around Blackberries and other smart phones to insure that we can be productive even in our short periods of downtime. For us, no warnings are needed - we ignore friends and relatives if "duty calls" on the work front. We vacation less...we work more.

In 2001, my friend Dr. Henry Abraham told me about a fascinating book – “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam. Putnam, like many a social theorists picked one area as metaphor to describe an overarching phenomenon. Dr. Palmer’s metaphor? Bowling. He observed that over the previous 25 years, while the number of people bowling had actually risen, the number of people bowling in leagues had declined. He cites other statistics to show how the United States has become an ever more isolated collection of individuals, rather than a collection of groups. Putnam believes that the social capital of society – “the fabric of our connections with each other” – is as important as its other form of capital, and that social capital is declining precipitously.

All of us who live in the US recognize our lives in this remark. We seem to have more gravitas, less fun and fewer social gatherings than before, and we work in cubicles in front of our computers, following an endless quest for productivity. We vacation less, work more, and most of us are focused on just making financial ends meet. I actually read and posted on a blog last week that objected to on-line chats at work because they were counter-productive to "productivity". I objected to that objection. Sometimes, enough is enough.

Putnam had many suggestions on fixing this problem, and even co-wrote a follow-on book “Better Together”, with prescriptions for improvements. But something surprising has happened: Social Networking. This phenomenon has created global and local communities of interest.

People who otherwise are isolated have found their voices on line. They participate in product reviews, are fearless in challenging those faceless corporations who they feel might have wronged them, and cheerfully join myspace, Linked In, Facebook, Second Life and other communities of interest.

Of course there are those who feel the social networking phenomenon is a poor proxy for direct human interaction. It’s true that my Second Life avatar, Masuite Loon, is 20 years younger, lots thinner and dresses way better than I do in real life. But the connections I make around the web in all my incarnations are deep and real. In fact, our company, RSR, had our first face to face meeting EVER at NRF’s Big Show. Yet these are people I feel as close to as any I’ve ever worked with. If there was a scale of Social Capital, I’d say we’ve generated a lot. And we know each others’ real names and what we really look like.

By now I’ll bet you’ve figured out I was a sociology major in college, and love social theory…but I’m a retailer too, and I see a convergence. Social networking on ecommerce sites is more than just a tool to extract more money from customers. It also fills a valuable gap. Just as a physical community gathers in a coffee bar in Athens to discuss the issues of the day, a virtual community can gather at places like to discuss issues pertinent to that location – i.e. the quality and experience derived from the products being sold.

So, what’s the bottom line? Good web site design must include a method and means to review products…a vehicle for connection between otherwise disconnected individuals. It’s not a perfect replacement and it’s not going to solve all our issues of isolation, but it will build customer loyalty. We can debate among ourselves and debate whether on-line communities are "grandfalloons" or "karrasses" a la Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”, but community is an important need. Community is attractive. We may still bowl alone, but we can rate the Wii’s bowling game all together.


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Mark Finnern said...

Your last line made me chuckle and a bit sad, as online voting is such a poor stand in for a hug of a friend.