Social Capital on the Internet

Social Capital on the Internet

One day when I checked my social media feed I was met with shocking news. Someone I recognized had been killed in a terrible car crash, along with his wife. He wasn’t someone I had ever met personally, wasn’t someone I had known for very long, but he was a mutual follower and he was a really friendly guy online. He was always supportive and only said nice things, which you probably know isn’t how everyone behaves on social media. I felt sincere grief that this man had tragically died, and donated to the crowdsourced fund for his orphaned children.

I bring this up not to showcase my charitable nature, but to point out that even though this person was only an acquaintance on social media, I felt connected enough to want to help his family in need. Arguably, by being supportive on social media, simply by liking my posts, this man had created enough of a bond between us that I felt a social obligation to him. One might cynically say that he had “bought” my support with a few clicks and some brief comments. But that’s just a way of saying that, by being a decent guy and following the etiquette of social media, he was building social capital.

“Social capital” is a concept from sociology that I have looked at before, when reviewing the work of Robert Putnam. This succinctly can be defined as “the value of social networks in providing generalized reciprocity.” I think the example I have just given is undeniably a case of this principle at work. I would say that all of cases of crowdfunding to help those in need, are examples of how social media is helping to reknit our society and forge the bonds of social capital. The loose associations of people on social networks are acting like the kinds of civic organizations that past generations joined, but that then fell off in membership, as Putnam has documented.

They might not form the progressive ideal of a social safety net, but at least they are something.

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