The person I heard speaking was quoting from the book Everybody's Normal Till You Meet Them by John Ortberg, where he sites two different medical studies linking health and community. Here's the excerpt:
"One of the most thorough research projects on relationships is called the Alameda County Study. Headed by a Harvard social scientist, it tracked the lives of 7,000 people over nine years. Researches found that the most isolated people were three times more likely to die than those with strong relational connections. People who had bad health habits (such as smoking, poor eating habits, obesity, or alcohol use) but strong social ties lived significantly longer than people had great health habits but were isolated. In other words, it is better to Twinkies with good friends than to eat your broccoli alone. Harvard researcher Robert Putnam notes that if belong to no groups but decide to join one, 'you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.'(from Everybody's Normal Till You Meet Them)
For another study, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 276 volunteers were infected with a virus that produces the common cold. The study found that people with strong emotional connections did four times better fighting off illness that those who were more isolated. These people were less susceptible to colds, had less virus, and produced significantly less mucous than relationally isolated subjects."
In an age of increasingly fractured social structures, omni-present online communities can provide the sense of belonging and connectedness that many of us have started to lose in our success-driven, work-intense, post-family, post-modern fragmented lives.
I'm talking about social networking, of course. Since business types realized the success of MySpace and Facebook, we've been desperately cramming social networking features into every web application we can think of, and many of the resulting "features" have left we-the-developers wondering whether any of this craze is really worth the effort. The answer is a clear yes, though we should certainly be more discerning with the way we implement them.
It's the fragmentation piece that's really getting to us. Even when we have communities, they're cut and spread across so many different geographical and online places that we still feel fractured. There's a sense of liberation in knowing your friends from group A will probably never hear about your common interests with group B, and there certainly needs to be a continued emphasis on personal privacy, but there's something very healthy and liberating about collapsing all of the various random mutations you've made of yourself into a single person and being that person 24/7.
I think Facebook has had a huge impact on reducing online fragmentation by encouraging people to be themselves. It's that single core feature of the application that keeps me interested and supportive despite the frustration of ignoring all the senseless message inviting me to become a zombie or a ninja or whatever and annoy my friends with spam. Facebook nailed social networking by focusing on simply creating online community and reducing the temptation to engage in the sort of anonymous jack-assery that most previous social forums have suffered from.
As we continue to build social RIAs, let's focus on helping our users engage in social communities in that kind of healthy way. Let's help reduce fragmentation by focusing on enhancing existing communities rather than creating totally new ones and focus our social features on things users really want rather than social networking for social networking's sake. I know that's a little preachy for a Wednesday, but these things are central to building good experiences.