Social Capital and the Influence of Social Networks


Halloween Parade 2007: poke poke poke poke on Flickr! Someone once asked me if reputation is interchangeable with Social Capital. Yes and no. To me, reputation is merely a dimension of Social Capital, not truly interchangeable. Social Capital is much more complex and includes:

  • connections
  • reputation
  • influence
  • bridging capital - the number of connections you have across to different industries, social strata, etc.
  • bonding capital - the depth of your close connections (how close and how much you could ask of your connections)
  • access to ideas and talent through your connections
  • access to resources through your connections
  • "potential" access to further resources (more distant, but very legitimate)
  • saved up favors (reciprocity is huge - which is why doing good stuff matter alot with social capital)
  • accomplishments (slightly different from reputation, it is the more fungible form of SC - resumes, awards, etc.)
  • and the Social Capital of those who you have relationships with (Bordieu's ideas on the French elite talk about this)

The social networks I use are merely tools to achieving the above, it is the connections -- the people -- within them that matter. If most of them were to go away tomorrow, I would shift my efforts to the other networks where my connections are (although I would feel a great loss with Twitter as I love hearing from people ambiently).

I not only use these social networks to interact, I use these networks to leverage and continue to build my Social Capital. As I build the Capital, I'm able to build on my network more easily. The success of the network is directly correlated to the amount of Social Capital it can help it's members build. If people are seeing success building their connections, reputation, influence, bridging capital, access to ideas, etc., they will return to the social network more often than for those networks that don't offer the same level of benefit.

At the same time, social networks that have highly influential people with loads of Social Capital within them, benefit from this presence. This is why certain networks will pay celebrities to be part of their community. The celebrity pays back into the social network with Social Capital, however, the flow needs to eventually benefit the celebrity in order to have a long term effect on the influence of the social network community. It really is a symbiotic relationship.

Networks like Facebook are interesting cases. The network, itself, holds a great deal of influence. They truly do have a key to the social graph. There has been alot of talk about data portability lately, but what some people don't understand is that my data outside of the context of Facebook may not be worth as much. The network itself holds a great deal of Capital. The members receive benefits from being part of it through the tools provided...benefits they could not receive as easily in the broader online space. They can be freer to express themselves and connect because there are filters to who gets to participate and how. It is also an 'active' rather than 'passive' space, where messaging comes in many forms. As everyone leverages the tools within the context of Facebook (writing on people's walls, poking them, inviting them to events, etc.), they grow their network and, thus, their influence, reputation, access, etc. In turn, Facebook benefits from my activity because as I grow my own Social Capital, they have examples of success in their network and end up attracting more people to it who want to achieve the same.

Of course, a smart way to circumvent the sheer influence of Facebook is through distributing those powerful social network tools, however, though most of my personal Social Capital IS fungible (that is, able to be transferred between Social Networks), there would be a certain amount of it lost if abandoning Facebook suddenly. This, MORE THAN the pain of sign ups and new logins and MORE THAN network lock-in, is truly what keeps people from jumping ship. But as soon as the potential of increased Social Capital appears in another network, people will, and do, jump ship.

So, the key to attracting and keeping members of a community is to offer them heaps of ways to accrue Social Capital within it. That is, to offer them more connections, more influence, more of a chance to grow their reputation, more bridging capital, more bonding capital, more access and potential access to ideas, talent and resources, more ways to display their accomplishments, more ways to do nice things for others (to build up those favors) and more access to those with loads of Social Capital of their own.

Or, as Kathy Sierra puts it, help your customers "kick ass".

Social Capital really is the key to understanding what makes online communities work. It's the key to understanding what motivates people. Having Social Capital keeps us warm at night, thinking of the many friends and contacts we have to help us overcome any situation and/or reach true self-actualization. I can tie it very tightly to the idea of Happiness as well (but that's for another blogpost).

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