Facebook and “maintained social capital” – a study at Michigan State University

Read about an interesting study on Facebook conducted at MSU (thanks to Alec Saunders).

Facebook logoThe group attempted to establish a correlation between different forms of social capital and heavy Facebook usage. To put it simply, social capital is the benefits we gain from being connected. (For an exhaustive study of social capital, read “Bowling Alone” by Putnam). In it Putnam establishes bridging social capital and bonding social capital. Bridging social capital represents the our relationships with acquaintances, whereas bonding social capital describes the close relationships we have with friends and family. The study, however, introduced a new form of social capital: “maintained social capital.”

Maintained Social Capital

Maintained social capital refers to those relationships, and the benefits we derive from them, that we maintain despite having shifted geography, interests or workplaces. In the case of Facebook, they may be the relationships we forged in high school with people who went off to different colleges. The authors of the study write:

Social networks change over time as relationships are formed or abandoned. Particularly significant changes in social networks may affect one’s social capital, as when a person moves from the geographic location in which their network was formed and thus loses access to those social resources.

What makes Facebook, other social networking sites, and the Internet in general so interesting when it comes to social capital, to put it plainly, is its uncanny ability to help people keep in touch. The authors of the study quantified those relationships using survey questions such as, “If I needed to, I could ask a high school acquaintance to do a small favor for me,” or “I’d be able to stay with a high school acquaintance if traveling to a different city.”

Social networking sites solidify our past relationships, and have huge benefits for personal and professional gain. Taken the above example, if you’re traveling to a city where you don’t know anyone, how easy it is to peruse your network of friends on Facebook or MySpace to see if an old friend or acquaintance got a new job there? Perhaps you wouldn’t feel comfortable crashing on their couch, but you might drop them a line to see if they are free for dinner one night.

On the one hand, the Internet is exciting because it’s fast; dynamic. On the other hand, however, it’s also much more stable; permanent.

Interesting stuff…

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