Is Social Capital Increasing Online?
Posted by Allison Fine on October 19, 2009
Jocelyn Harmon has written a terrific post called Are We Still Bowling Alone? Jocelyn rightly ponders the possibility that the use of social media tools, particularly social networking sites, is reversing the trends of decreasing social capital that Robert Putnam famously wrote about at the end of the twentieth century in Bowling Alone.
Populations the size of not-so-small countries are on MySpace, Friendster (not so big here, but very big in Asia) and, of course, Facebook. Friends are connecting to friends in growing numbers. The assumption therefore, is that we are renewing the fabric of communities as Putnam called social capital. And I believe that we are – but proving it isn’t quite so easy.
Social capital at its core is made up of two key components: trust and reciprocity. I believe that the social networking sites are doing a great job of creating and increasing trust between people. Unlike chat rooms that were a part of the Web 1.0 landscape, in the Web 2.0 world users choose their friends. And unchoose them by defriending them or no longer following them on Twitter. We choose people based on our on land connections and based on their reputation – are they friends with people that I know, do they work for organizations that I trust? If the answers are yes, then we connect with them and trust them with our information and our friends. And for the most part this works very well, that’s why the social networking sites have grown so quickly. And we can check in quickly and easily with acquaintances, maintain friendships with people from previous times in our lives more easily than ever before. This is the phenomenon that Leisa Reichelt cleverly calls “ambient intimacy.“
So, trust is growing, but as mentioned above that’s only one part of the social capital equation. Reciprocity focuses on what we’re doing with all of these connections.
Reciprocity, the second half of the recipe for social capital is defined to mean that I do something for someone with the confidence that at some future time they’ll do something similar for me. I bring someone food when they’re sick, or water their plants when they’re away, or go to their birthday party because it is the right thing to do – but also with the confidence that I can count on them to do something similar for me in the future. How is this playing out online?
Jocelyn rightly points out that some of what is happening online that is reciprocal is fundraising. I click for breast cancer because my friend Sally asked me to, and in the future, she’ll click on Hope for Henry for me. America’s Giving Challenge that is now underway is entirely based on the notion of friends asking friends to contribute to their cause. But, reciprocity online is also about helping one another. Twitter is a great place to watch reciprocity in action. Twitter followers answer questions for one another, what’s the best tool for X?, who knows the best consultant for Y?, who is going to Z event? There are many stories of a blog post about a family in need and the immediate response of a community of people quickly and generously supporting them with food, clothing, supplies, etc. David Armano spearheaded such an effort last year.
My question, the big question really about social capital in general, is how can we measure this reciprocity online — and is it growing? And I wish I had an easy answer, but our communities are complicated online. We don’t just exist in one place, we’re talk and connect with people in lots of places online, around lots of issues and measuring where reciprocity exists around the web and how it is growing would be a pretty big task. It also outweighs the incessant focus on measure clicks as return on investment – particularly for causes. Clicks count, but they pale in comparison to the creation or strengthening of social capital that is much more important to improving social outcomes in the long run.
There are ways to begin. For instance, what is the nature of the conversation with the comments on a blog? And how many retweets does one get on Twitter when asking a question? And, how many people are talking about your issue on their blog and linking to you? And, of course, how many are you linking to? These are important, but they’re just a beginning to understanding the nature and strength of relationships that are growing online.
So, well, I’m going to take the easy way out today and say we need to figure it out, and I’m open to suggestions! This is clearly a topic that will need revisiting over time.
This entry was posted on October 19, 2009 at 8:33 am and is filed under Social Media. Tagged: america's giving challenge, Hope for Henry, Jocelyn Harmon, Komen Race for the Cure, Leisa Reichelt, Robert Putnam. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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