I continue to be fascinated with Twitter, and one of the primary drivers of the phenomenon known as Web 2.0: social networking. There have been some rather searing commentaries on Twitter lately from Nicholas Carr, and Kathy Sierra, among others. I'm not going to rehash their interesting and cogent arguments, but I'm going to ask some more fundamental questions about all of this.
In general, I have to admit that I have found very little usefulness in Web 2.0 social networking tools. Yes, I have an account on del.icio.us, digg, ma.gnolia and LinkedIn. I even had an orkut account years ago. There have been some interesting useful tidbits (I talked with an Apple recruiter, helping her figure out the best way to find people likely to be a good Genius for the new Holyoke Apple store, I've found a few links now and again,) but for the most part, I have gotten back way, way less than I invested in signing up, linking, etc. I'm sure this experience is different for different people, but I wonder whether people really feel like they've gotten useful concrete benefit from the effort they've put in. I've gotten much more benefit from tools that are heavy on content, and light on networking (like H2Oplaylist, which actually isn't a social networking tool, per se, although it has some interesting functionalities in that regard.)
In all of this, I'm reminded of Barbara Ehrenriech's new book, which I'm going to read soon. It's called Dancing in the Streets, a History of Collective Joy. Her premise, as I understand it, is that modern culture has slowly but surely decreased our collective activities that connect us, and allow us to express and share joy. I also can't help but think about that oft criticized, but interesting book, "Bowling alone" about the reduction in social capital. It is pretty clear that we as a society we've become more and more compartmentalized - each of us in our own little world, with our own little TV and internet connection - and we feel the need to connect with other people.
Back to nonprofit technology - a colleague and I wondered aloud together about the sheer boredom that nonprofit technology can be sometimes - and do new things like Twitter, or Second Life, or what have you, relieve some of that boredom? The boredom of databases, and networks, and accounting and ... But certainly, one could argue that connecting with other people around a particular social issue is useful for nonprofits. Finding ways to tap into, for instance, the vast network that is MySpace could be an avenue to find constituents, donors and volunteers. So I don't want to write off social networking, but it's also true that "old-fashioned" social networking via email lists is still going strong, and there seems to be no substitute for a real, live face-to-face gathering.
But also a push-back to nonprofit technology - if social networking tools like Twitter seem to be band-aids to help heal the wound of a disconnected society - what about the wound itself?