Social media and social capital

I am constantly surprised by just how new the new media are. This was brought home to me today while I worked on the next edition of my book on social capital.

James Coleman was dead before the first ever SMS message was sent on 3 December 1992, and Pierre Bourdieu did not live to see the integration of cameras into mobile phones. Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In short, the main lines of the debate over social capital were laid down long before today’s highly mediated social connections came into being.

It isn’t surprising that most early writing about digitised social bonds was highly speculative, and often pessimistic. During our early discussions over what later became an edited book of critical perspectives on social capital, Tom Schuller used to alarm me with his descriptions of an atomised society of individuals, each plugged into their own Walkman, and sharing nothing of their tastes with their neighbours.

Social research invariably lags behind innovative forms of behaviour, and only now can we see a significant body of evidence about how people understand relationships that are mediated by networks such as Facebook. Most of this early evidence comes from western societies, particularly the United States, and quite a lot is based on studies of highly educated young people who are still at college. And for both ethical and practical reasons, we still have relatively little evidence of the dark side of the new social media.

I’m still reviewing this growing mountain of research. At this stage, I reckon that most of the empirical studies suggest that most young people use social media partly to maintain existing social bonds (for example, with old school friends now studying elsewhere, or between young emigrants and their friends back ‘home’) and partly to exchange hot information with a wider and more disparate network. In short, social media can in these cases help sustain existing bonds, while extending them for specific purposes.

If this is born out by subsequent studies, then we don’t need to worry too much about the future social capital of our societies. It will change somewhat in composition, but the underlying bonds of reciprocity and trust will still be there. Sometimes people will use these networks to spread ill-will and hatred rather than enlightenment and joy, but that is also true of face-to-face ties, as you can hear for yourself in almost any pub. Every nationalist knows that it helps to bind people together if you can also give them someone to hate.

This is, then, a rather dull conclusion. It is unlikely to satisfy critics like Sherry Turkle, a veteran student of digital cultures who now laments the corrosive effects of email and texting for giving us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, undermining the reciprocity and learning that occur through face-to-face interaction, compromising our privacy, and favouring novelty over substance.

But I see it as offering some clear pointers to the future of regulation over social media, the development of appropriate rules of ‘netiquette’, and the extension of social media across existing digital divides between the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor. If social media can indeed help build social capital, we should do it in ways that are inclusive and socially sustainable.

3 thoughts on “Social media and social capital

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking blog, John. As a relative newcomer to theories of social capital (through doctoral studies as a mature student) I have already wondered how Bourdieu and Coleman would have dealt with Facebook (and the rest) and whether Putnam knows how to upload photos onto his Facebook page? I think it’s a mistake to think that Facebook is a young person’s place. I count myself as middle-aged and use facebook to keep in touch with individuals (also largely middle-aged) I may in fact never see again – ex-colleagues, ex-neighbours, friends and family in different cities, counties, continents. The interaction somehow allows the essence of those relationships to continue through the trivialities and the tragedies of life – perhaps that is a definition of friendship anyway? I also use Facebook to broadcast support for a range of campaigns eg: those run by 38 degrees.

  2. Hi John, think the links between social capital & social media are a whole lot more complicated than our assumptions might suggest. could they not reinforce existing social & cultural capital limitations for some, but extend others’ social reach? I occasionally work with a local reminiscence group, filming & recording their memories. We share contact details & diaries via email & smartphone, arrange collective viewing of Youtube videos in the local library. I refuse to have a Facebook account, but have developed virtual networks of people I share information with via RebelMouse & Twitter. Some of these virtual aquaintances I’ve met via physical Tweet-ups, others i probalby never will. One of my sons however, has no time for Twitter but organises his itinerant work & social life via Facebook & messaging. Perhaps our use of social media will turn out to mirror our use of ‘traditional’ media, reflect how we interact with our personal life worlds?

  3. Yes, an interesting blog and study.

    This might be useful somewhere. Skorton and Altschuler (2013) quote Susan Holmes, a professor of statistics at Stanford, as saying: ‘I don’t think you can get a Stanford education online, just as I don’t think that Facebook gives you a social life’.

    Kennedy and colleagues (2009) interviewed 2,600 Australian university students and 108 academics in 2006 on their use and preferences for social media and other web 2.0 tools in learning-teaching. They concluded:

    ‘there is little empirical support for the rhetoric that university students are digital natives and university staff are digital immigrants;
    there is great diversity in students’ and staff experiences with technology, and their preferences for the use of technology in higher education; and
    the data paint a complex picture of the technological experiences first-year university students bring to higher education’ (page 3).

    Kennedy, Gregor, Dalgarno, Barney, Bennett, Sue, Gray, Kathleen, Judd, Terry, Waycott, Jenny, Chang, Rosemary, Bishop, Andrea, Maton, Karl and Krause, Kerri-Lee (2009) Educating the Net Generation: implications for learning and teaching in Australian universities, Australian Learning and Teaching Council, Strawberry Hills, retrieved 5 May 2013 from

    Skorton, David and Altschuler, Glenn (2013) MOOCs: A College Education Online? Forbes, 28 January, retrieved 9 February 2013 from

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