20 February 2011
Can Social Media Build Social Capital?
A Conversation with David Crowley of Social Capital, Inc.
One of the critical questions surrounding the use and value of social media like Facebook and Twitter is whether they strengthen or undermine “real” community.
The most common measure of community strength is known as “social capital,” a term popularized by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, which tracks the alarming decline of social capital among American communities. (A trend, by the way, that began long before the rise of social media.)
The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. "Social capital refers to "the collective value of all 'social networks' [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [norms of reciprocity]." - from bowlingalone.com
David is an expert in the field of social capital. He is also an avid social media user (Twitter, Social Capital blog, Cooking Chat blog). I asked David whether or not social media is capable of building social capital. As you can probably guess, he does. Here’s what I learned:
Bonding and Bridging Social Capital
David distinguished between two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is about strengthening the ties between people that are already connected. This is built up on sites like Facebook, where most people already know their Facebook friends in real life. Facebook keeps these already existent relationships, connections, and conversations going.
Bridging social capital is about creating connections between people that don’t already know one another and have divergent interests. Bridging capital is about helping people discover common points of intersection, creating new relationships and links. Twitter is a great tool for this. As an open medium, it connects far more people that don’t have existing connections.
Small Talk Matters
There is a social purpose in small talk. All the little chit chat about the weather actually reinforces commonality. Small talk in social media is made up of “likes”, comments and mentions. They may be short, but they are not insignificant.
Trust is the ultimate currency of social capital. Trust can be built when people spend time together, but social media can also be used, as David said, as “a pretty good proxy.” Social media strengthens our ties, which is what social capital is all about. It keeps connections going when we can’t be face-to-face.
Social Media Makes Social Capital More Tangible
Social media also makes social capital more tangible. You can see it in comments, likes, mentions, and retweets. While much of the benefit of social media is anecdotal, it is, in fact, quantifiable. David keeps track as a way to determine whether it is a use of his time.
Tech Tip: David uses Row Feeder to collect and save tweets into a Google Docs spreadsheet. I’ve just started using it. It’s brilliant.
And the Answer Is
David does see social media helping build social capital. However, he doesn’t think there is quite enough of a critical mass of users to have a major impact - yet. However, most of the social service organizations in Woburn (see my post on the library) and now schools are using social media. The School Superintendent even has a Twitter account and has started announcing school closings on it. As more information and useful solutions become available, adoption rates should increase, and so should social capital.
What has been your experience social media creating social capital, or not?