Social Capital and the Web

                Social capital as it’s referenced in this paper follows the Wellman-Haase-Witte-Hampton (2001) model1.  This stipulates that social capital encompasses three forms: network capital, participatory capital, and community commitment.  Network capital refers to relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers who provide significant companionship, emotional aid, services, information and a sense of belonging (Wellman et al. 2001).  Participatory capital is a measure of involvement in politics and voluntary organizations that facilitate opportunities to bond, recognize shared desires and interests, and found collaborative movements.  Community commitment centers on a strong and responsible sense of belonging: being a motivated and conscious member who is able to mobilize – effectively uniting both organizational/political urges (participatory capital) and interpersonal interaction (network capital) (Wellman et al. 2001, referencing McAdam 1982).  The three combined adequately illustrate an inclusive and comprehensive basis of realization of social capital.
                Facebook’s role as hurricane of both a tacit and overt emergent cosmologies2 stands as an almost real-time ordering of patterns of relationships and associations.  Participants log on several times daily, enabling their actions and deposited identities orchestrate the system beyond their initial involvement.  Facebook’s context and space is fundamentally and incessantly permanently beta in nature (Ginger 2008) which facilitates a sort of adaptive engineering style of participation through communication, identity sharing, and media exchange.  One could not select a more representative environment of digital social capital.  The system offers an unprecedented efficient and extensive opportunity to establish, maintain, and strengthen ties with family, friends, neighbors, students, and anyone else who provides the camaraderie, aid and welcoming feelings evocative of network capital.  No research to date has been explicitly conducted on Facebook’s differing influences on strong verses weak ties, but this paper postulates (in chorus with danah boyd) that the system really can manipulate both to a significant degree.  Generally students log in and see what all of their friends are up to with a glance of the newsfeed, go check up on pictures of recent events, post announcements in a public manner on one another’s walls, manage their events for an upcoming weekend, and sneak around getting glimpses into the digitally manifested lives of others.  Social networking services, are in essence, simply built upon networked capital.
                Participatory capital dons a new cloak in the realm of Facebook, as it’s a performance realm and belongs to a relatively advantaged population who’ve spent their lives immersed in the individualistic capitalistic oriented America.  Participatory causes, therefore, take on sometimes funny or unusual forms, as evidenced by mass collective membership in groups about the Oregon Trail videogame3 or double spacing papers.  Not everything on Facebook is a big joke, however, one of the most popular applications is devoted to user-designated worthwhile causes and boasts over 219,000 daily active users4. Various Darfur support causes have rallied together thousands of members, raised significant sums of money and roused awareness amongst both students and even politicians by sending notifications to senators and representatives (Jordan 2007).  The largest group on Facebook at the time of this writing stands at over 1.6 million members – built completely on fears that Facebook would be shut down.  Members flocked in throngs to lend their support to a cause that was perceptibly popular – and shows just how much people are invested in the system when they fear they might lose it.  Students bond through these group, application, and cause memberships – they show similarities, collaborate, and cause the movements that churn the wild winds of Facebook.
                Political causes are no joke either – Stutzman (2006) suggests that it’s the ultimate in new political cause platforms, a place where any given interest group or cause can create a temporary event or group to push their agenda.  Politicians are keenly aware of this fact and now typically sport profiles and groups to promote their image online (Baldinger 2006) and can even link into applications.  The snowball effects are potentially tremendous and yield staggering results.  The night of the Virginia Tech shootings students held a candlelight vigil in response to the tragedy (Pelofsky 2007).  The event’s organizing agent?  A collaborative Facebook social epidemic.  Evidence at UIUC suggests that trends may not be short lived – those campaigning on behalf of Chief Illiniwek have built up a few thousand member groups that have been active for years.  Still yet global groups dedicated to larger causes like sex education or environmentalism drive the SNS’s political important to a new level, with members numbering in the tens of thousands.
                Perhaps the most often cited reason Facebook is so popular is the sheer frequency and depth of participant involvement in the site.  Students find extensions of the same offline experiences tied to social capital, interpersonal and organizational, and naturally let the same feelings and obligations migrate to the digital space.  Community commitment, if properly facilitated, can thrive on Facebook.  People feel compelled to login at the sight of a new Facebook email and continuously bound through one another’s pages strengthening old relationships, initiating (or perhaps more commonly investigating the possibility of) new ones, and otherwise becoming socially informed.  Most participants spend a few hours (at least) a month trouncing around the place.  Organization and event leaders update their corresponding groups and can mass-message their members.  Though not the purpose of this paper, (and thus lacking data) the social norms amuck on Facebook have formulated a surprisingly intricate performative and public space.  If a member posts on another’s wall they’re almost always obligated to respond in a similar public fashion.  If an ex-boyfriend you wish you didn’t date lists this detail in your ‘how you know this person’ section it might open up a ferocious argument.  Fraternities and sororities go to painstaking lengths to hide or display specific information about members in order to best recruit more.  Or, in the case of the Chief, Facebook assumes the role of a semi-public environment (previously thought) unenforced by official authorities in which students can flex their personal vindications for social justice or school pride.  Users can create or join groups, events, and applications to assert their affiliations and community memberships and do so with an eagerness never seen before online.
                Early studies of ICT influences on social capital indicate that the internet supplements and extends communication as well as social capital but may not dramatically change it (Wellman et al. 2001).  Fortunately, a more specific and exceedingly helpful study on the relationship between social capital and Facebook is now available.  One of the only reputable sources of viable academic professional caliber in existence directly on itself, Nicole Ellison, Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe investigate a positive effect of membership on in their paper Spatially Bounded Online Social Networks and Social Capital: The Role of Facebook (2006).  They seek to study and measure social capital, or resources, actual and virtual, that accrue to participants in the Facebook SNS.  While social capital is invariably linked to social outcomes, the article focuses particularly on the positive effects afforded by Facebook and examines both bonding and bridging social capital.  Results from multiple regression analysis of the 800 person random sampling from the Michigan State University undergraduate population indicate that Facebook had a significant impact on students’ ability to maintain bridging social capital at college (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006).  General internet use, as compared, did not make a significant difference in determining social capital.  The social capital of students who reported low satisfaction with MSU life and low self-esteem were most positively impacted by Facebook intensity (use).  Interestingly enough white students were more likely to have this than non-white students.  Having more friends who use Facebook, using Facebook to connect with offline contacts, and using Facebook for fun accurately predicted rates and trends of bridging social capital, but not bonding social capital (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006).
                As the paper notes in its general discussion, the relationship between Facebook and social capital does not determine causation – students bring with them a plethora of connections and resources to the SNS environment and consequently take away new ones.  The point is that the two worlds are interconnected and coproducing of one another – invariably linked and dependent reproducing both weak ties, potential and realized, as well as strengthening social bonds.

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[1] Which pulls from Robert Putnam’s model (1996, 2000).

[2] Collective activity that gives rise to identity and corresponding worlds of thought and discourse, see Schopflin 2001.

[3] See The Facebook Project research Proposal, available at

[4] See the details on the Causes application at