In the book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, suggests that Americans increasingly are becoming more socially isolated — a trend he calls “an erosion of social capital.” His well-chronicled perspective has since become the mantra of many social media critics: namely, that the Internet is the primary catalyst driving our disconnection.

Downtowns have a long history as centers of civic connection: Parks and plazas serve as gathering points for communal activities and events; coffee houses offer relaxation and conversation; restaurants allow family and friends to break bread together. Geographically central in their proximity, downtowns are easily accessible to local urbanites. And the appeal of these settings is growing among suburban residents, attracted to the diverse, cultural amenities that these environments offer.

The buzz of late in downtown Sacramento is around the convergence of the ever popular in-person Twitter-related gatherings known as Tweetups. “Two parts social and one part business,” says Alejandro Reyes, who along with his media-consulting colleague Sierra Friend, are the catalysts of these events.  Tweetups provide a forum to connect people who either have crossed paths in the Twitter virtual world, or are curious to discover what all the fuss is about. And unlike the online version where messages are limited to 140 characters, attendees can babble on about their personal and professional exploits ad infinitum — fueled in part by free-flowing beverages.

Earlier this year Reyes and Friend set out to determine whether Sacramento residents would be willing to awaken from their reclusive slumber — tweets and all — and connect person-to-person at organized events. While their first Tweetup in a suburban locale attracted respectable numbers, it quickly became apparent that downtown Sacramento would likely serve as a more robust engine for their ambitions. As a result of moving the event to more urbane settings, per event attendance has skyrocketed to upwards of 150 participants.

The contention that social networking is an urban phenomenon is supported by a Pew Internet and American Life Project survey that reveals thirty-five percent of Twitter users live in urban areas. Even more remarkable is the finding by comScore, an Internet marketing research company, which stated the primary user demographic of this social networking site ranges between the ages of 45 and 54.

So what does the future hold for online social networking as a driving force for real-world meetings? Is it a panacea for the social isolation Harvard professor Putnam notes in his critically acclaimed book? Many home-based, small business professionals that I’ve talked to are hopeful that Tweetups and other Internet-driven, in-person events will provide avenues of social connection or even new business opportunities.  And this method may serve as a nationally innovative tool for downtowns that are seeking to attract much-needed foot-traffic and vitality to their areas amid tight economic times.

Eventually a conclusion will be reached as to whether this online/in-person social movement is a Trick or Tweet. What do you think? Send me an email or a tweet. My Twitter handle is @urbanist27 for those of you who want to add your two cents on this topic.