As part of my postgraduate research I did a lot of work on Social Network Theory and Social Capital — two academic theories from the social sciences field. This was before the rise of online social networking sites. I recently revisited some of the work I did, and I became interested in mapping the concept of Social Capital to online social networks as they exist today. In order to to that, here is first a definition and explanation (pulled from my dissertation):
Closely related to social network theory is the theory of ‘social capital’ which deals with the intrinsic value of network structures. In general terms, social capital “consists of resources embedded in social relations and social structure, which can be mobilized when an actor wished to increase the likelihood of success in a purposive action” (Lin, 2001b). Lin (2001a) points out two important components concerning this definition:
- First, resources are embedded in social relations rather than in the individual. The properties of the network and an actor’s position in that network are more important than the actor himself.
- Second, access and use of these resources are dependent on an actor being aware of their presence. If an actor is not aware of ties or relationships between him and other actors, he cannot use the resources available to him. Social capital then seems not to exist, and will only come into existence for that actor once he becomes aware of it. The ability to identify networks and key role-players in these networks will therefore make it possible to identify social capital where the relevant actors may be completely unaware of them. The goal of finding the key actors in a network can therefore be likened to gauging the social capital of a network and finding value in networks where it was not previously observed.
From the definition it is inferred that social capital depends first on an actor’s position in the network (are they in the right place to access the resources?), and second it depends on the nature of the resources in the network (are the resources worth accessing?).
It is very interesting to think about online social networking sites in this context. The social capital (the value of being in the network) depends not just on the individual people in that network, but very heavily on the way they are connected. Connecting to the “right” people end up defining you and building your social capital, because other people will “judge” the amount of capital you have based on your connections and your interactions with these connections. In this context it is essential to find those “key actors” in the network that are going to increase your social capital the most — the popular guy, your VP at work, etc.
Now, according to Adler and Kwon (2000), there are 3 benefits of social capital:
- Social capital provides actors in the network with access to broader sources of information at lower costs.
- Social capital provides actors in the network with extended power and influence.
- Social capital facilitates solidarity between actors, as strong networks encourage compliance with rules and customs without the need for formal controls.
Again, it’s interesting to overlay these concepts on social networks online. Let’s look at each in turn:
- Access to broader sources of information at lower costs. “Lower costs” in this context would mean less effort — you are able to get access to the information you want about your friends without having to reach out to them in a traditional sense with a phone call or hanging out. On Facebook, for example, the news comes to you through the “Mini-Feed” application. You know what the people in your network watch, eat, do, listen to, etc. And this social information is of course an extremely powerful marketing tool. Social networks enable this information to spread much more easily (i.e. at “lower cost”).
- Extended power and influence. People with higher social capital not only get the benefit of more (although not necessarily better) information, but they also stand the chance to become “opinion leaders” that a lot of people rely on. And this is not necessarily the person with the most connections (I will talk about this in an upcoming post where I will discuss Ronald Burt’s theory of Structural Holes). This power and influence can really go a long way to build an online identity that becomes a sense of pride — consider the lonelygirl15 phenomenon, or influential blogs like TMZ and The Drudge Report.
- Solidarity between actors (compliance with rules and customs without the need for formal controls). This is an interesting one to think about. Even though there is so much freedom to do and say what you want online, strong social networks seem to have their own rules in terms of what is allowable and what is not. I think here for example of the “Groups” feature in Facebook, where people who don’t necessarily know each other connect over shared interests. “Misbehaving” on Facebook or MySpace, in whatever way that is defined for a particular network, will get you kicked out of the circle — friends will drop you, groups will take you off their member lists, etc. This all serves to build the strength of the network and its members even more.
“So what?”, you ask? Well, I think that we don’t pay enough attention to theory. I just read this paragraph from my dissertation again:
Theory and practice cannot be separated. Virtually every practical decision a person makes and every practical opinion a person holds has some theory behind it. Theory makes the facts of social life comprehensible and places seemingly meaningless events in a general framework that enables us to determine cause and effect, to explain, and to interpret. Even half a century ago Revzan (1951) commented that “analysis leading to theory should not merely condone practice, but should seek rather to improve and direct such practice.” Much earlier, Einstein (1938) observed that “science is not just a collection of laws, a catalogue of unrelated facts. It is a creation of the human mind, with its freely invented ideas and concepts. Physical theories try to form a picture of reality and to establish a connection with the wide world of sense impressions. Thus the only justification for our mental structures is whether and in what way our theories form such a link.”
The theories of social networking and social capital can enhance our understanding of what happens in online social networks, which can, in turn, become strong business ideas. Some questions these theories raise for me are, for example, How can we point out who the opinion leaders are in your online social network, something that is not always apparent? How can we use the rules and customs that online networks adhere to in creating a more meaningful experience for users?
I think there is a lot of value in looking beyond networks to the social capital that they produce. We need to understand how online social networks already manifest these concepts, and where there is still opportunities to use these theories to create better experiences for users.