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.