So what is social capital online? Some posthoc thoughts

A few days ago I was honoured to participate at the special symposium organised by the Journal of Comparative Economics and VoxUkraine where I presented some speculations about civic society and online social capital in Ukraine. It was a great forum where I received neat and challenging comments & suggestions (this is the best euphemism for criticism I could come up with).

I guess this random and scattered blog is just an attempt to spell my views on social capital online. I think it is important to reflect one more time and think about the definitions and their interpretation given the context of online interactions.

(1) Lets start from the very beginning. What is social capital? Sociological determinism rooted in works of Granovetter, Lin, Flap and other scholars of late 80s early 90s suggests that social capital is something an individual may get after investing in social ties. Social ties with important people bring relevant information, reputation, better jobs etc. I guess Bourdieu belongs to this school as well. With an exception that social stratification was crucial in his works. Social capital helps a person with a low social status to walk up on the social ladder.

An alternative view on social capital is rooted in works of Coleman (big fun!) and Putnam (not such a big fun). Social capital here is a common good that appears from communication between people. People are engaged in social interactions and that is how they generate social norms, trust, and institutions. When interactions between people are “nice” (repetitive, mutually oriented, rewording), social capital pops up as a by-product of these interactions and benefits all individuals indirectly. For example, high level of trust reduces transaction costs etc.

The question is – is there any way for social capital to emerge from online communication? And can it be segued offline? I believe that the answer is positive in both cases, however it is not going to please sociologists. I guess we should abandon an idea that social capital is a return on ties. I doubt that online interactions, especially during revolutions, are based on social group cleavages. First of all it is not so simple to signal the social group belonging online; secondly, grass-root civic movements usually unite people with different background (EuroMaidan united working class and service class as well as students and pensioners). Social capital in case of online civic movements is indeed something that people hadn’t had before their online interactions, something that emerged from their interactions, and something that benefits the whole community indirectly. In a way that people who belong to the same Facebook page derive positive experience from there and act with respect to this experience. Here Coleman’s theory fits perfect, because we really want to measure new social norms and trust that emerge from human interaction. A crucial thing here (and I thank Ruben Enikolopov for his hint) is to establish a valid reference category. What if social capital had NOT been developed online? This means that people would have gone online, spent their time on reading some posts…but they would not have developed some mutual trust, realisation of a community, understanding how to behave according to the group expectations in a given context. I think online social capital promotes homogeneity and regularity of behaviour (and this is the path to offline), and the lack of social capital provides atomisation of individuals whose behaviour is not related to others. An important thing here is that their behaviour may look the same (to share the same post) – but this behaviour is not necessary affected by actions of other people. Just like in the example of Weber who pointed out that when people open umbrellas this is not a social action because it is not mutually oriented, they are just reactions to the same independent cause (rain). And these reactions just happened to be the same.

(2) Social capital and networks. When many people share the same post this is important. But this says nothing about their chances to share the next post. That is why my study was concentrated on social networks. Regarding the theory proposed (Granovetter vs Coleman), social capital is always embedded in social networks. And the only way to see if actions of people are related to actions of other people is to measure the properties of social networks. By looking at density or transitivity of online networks we may see if there are some structures of connectivity, or maybe people are unrelated in their online behaviour. By looking at various measures of centrality we may see if people occupy a certain position within this network and, therefore, have some special role in creating social capital.

(3) Online social capital and posts on Facebook. Lets say you agree with me and think that social capital is a common good, and it can be somehow seen in social networks…the next issue is how to measure online interactions in a way that they reflect networks of people. And this has been a big issue for my research since I study people who comment the same post. Here I have to agree with all my critics (Keith and Eric made a very strong point there) who pointed out that this measure reflects an exposure of people to the same information but not necessary the communication between people. Can it still be the case that my measure captures social capital in any way? I guess so. Again, if we agree that social capital is a common good that emerges from communication, then it is crucial to understand the channels for this information to flow. In the worst case scenario all people in my data are exposed to different posts, or they have no pattern of exposure – just random connection to miscellaneous information. In the best case scenario, people in my data are not only exposed to the same information, there is also a structure of the connections allowing us drawing conclusions about clusters where information sticks and bridges that theoretically allow information to spread. How do these bridges work? Even though I don’t measure conversations between people and their reciprocity, I think I still may suggest that when one person is receiving an information from one cluster, the same person is likely to bring this information to another cluster in comment session.

(4). Some other issues like the social profile of users, the role of strong/week ties (and their operationalisation online), and the possibility to study alternative social media will be discussed in the next entries.

ps. If someone is interested, my slides and all other presentations can be downloaded here. And the complete video of the presentation with comments is here (starting from 3:50:40)

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