Online Social Network Sites and the Concept of Social Capital

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  • OnlineSocialNetworkSites

    andtheConceptofSocialCapital

    CharlesSteinfield,NicoleEllison,CliffLampe,andJessicaVitak

    DepartmentofTelecommunication,InformationStudies&Media

    MichiganStateUniversity

    ForpresentationatTheInternetTurning40Conference

    SchoolofJournalismandMassCommunication

    ChineseUniversityofHongKong

    1.Introduction

    Duringthepastdecadeusageofonlinesocialnetworksiteshasgrowndramatically,now

    rivalingsearchenginesasthemostvisitedInternetsites(ExperianHitwise,2010).Withthe

    riseofsuchmegasitesasFacebook,whichbyitselfnowboastsmorethan400million

    activeusersaroundtheworld(FacebookPressRoom,2010),onlinesocialnetworkusehas

    becomeafixtureinthelivesofalargeproportionoftheworlds1.8billionInternetusers

    (InternetWorldStats,2010).Growingevidencefromanalysesofonlinesocialnetworksite

    usesuggeststhatthesesiteshavebecomeimportanttoolsformanagingrelationshipswith

    alargeandoftenheterogeneousnetworkofpeoplewhoprovidesocialsupportandserve

    asconduitsforusefulinformationandotherresources(boyd&Ellison,2007;Ellisonetal.,

    2007).SuchSNSbenefitsarederivedfromsocialrelationshipsandhavebeenbroadly

    conceptualizedassocialcapitaloutcomesofSNSuse(Ellisonetal.,2007).Beyond

    identifyingbenefits,newresearchexploresthefactorsthatleadtoimprovedoutcomesfor

    SNSusers(Burkeetal.,2010;Ellisonetal,2010).Giventhepervasiveuseofsocialnetwork

    sites(SNSs),thereisaneedforacarefulassessmentofthewaysinwhichusersincorporate

    thesetoolsintotheirdailylivesandobtainbenefitsfromuse.Thegoalsofthepaperare

    thereforetoreviewthebroadthemesfromthisbodyofwork,andtoexaminethe

    underlyingmechanismsthroughwhichsocialcapitalbenefitsaregenerated.Byexposing

    suchmechanisms,wewillbebetterpreparedtoeducatefutureusersaboutusage

    strategies,aswellasaiddesignerswhoareaddingsocialfeaturestomanynewformsof

    onlinemedia.

    Theremainderofthispaperisorganizedasfollows.First,socialnetworksitesarebriefly

    introducedanddefined,soastodifferentiatethemfromotherformsofonline

    communities.Thepaperthenintroducesthenotionofsocialcapitalandsummarizeskey

    findingsfromresearchexploringthelinkagesbetweensocialcapitalandtheInternet.We

    thenreviewtheliteratureinvestigatingthesocialcapitalimplicationsofonlinesocial

    networksites.Aspartofthisreview,weexploretheunderlyingmechanismsthatcan

    explainhowsocialnetworksitescontributetosocialcapitalformation.Thepaper

    concludeswithsuggestionsforfutureresearch.

    Charles Steinfield

    Charles SteinfieldThis paper was later published as: Steinfield, C., Ellison, N., Lampe, C., and Vitak, J. Online social network sites and the concept of social capital. In Lee, F. L., Leung, L., Qiu, J. S., and Chu, D. (eds.), Frontiers in New Media Research, New York: Routledge, 2012, 115-131.

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    2.DefiningSocialNetworkSites

    Manywebsitescontainsocialfeaturessuchasuserprofilesortheabilitytopostcomments

    onotherusers'content.Thesefeatures,however,donotmakeasiteasocialnetworksitein

    andofthemselves.ThetermsocialnetworksitebroadlyisusedtorefertoWebsitesthat

    enableuserstoarticulateanetworkofconnectionsofpeoplewithwhomtheywishto

    shareaccesstoprofileinformation,news,statusupdates,comments,photos,orotherforms

    ofcontent.boyd&Ellison(2007)assertthatSNSshavethreeessentialcomponents:1)a

    userconstructedpublicorsemipublicprofile,2)asetofconnectionstootheruserswithin

    thesystem,and3)theabilitytoviewone'sownlistofconnections,aswelltheconnections

    madebyothersinthesystem.Indeedresearchersconsiderthepublicdisplaysof

    connectionstobeacrucialfeatureofSNSsdifferentiatingthemfrommostotherformsof

    socialmedia(boyd&Ellision,2007;Donath&boyd,2004).Beyondthesebasiccapabilities,

    SNSsdifferinawidevarietyofways,includinghowprofilesareconstructed(e.g.,what

    fieldsareprovidedforuserstodescribethemselves?),howconnectionsaremade(e.g.,are

    theyreciprocalorcantheybeasymmetric?),whatothercommunicationfeaturesare

    available(e.g.,supportforprivatevs.publicmessaging),andhowcustomizablethepages

    arefroma"lookandfeel"perspective(boyd&Ellison(2007).

    HundredsofSNSshavebeencreated,buttoday,Facebookisbyfarthelargestintermsof

    thenumberofusers,eclipsingMySpaceinglobaluniquevisitstoitsWebsiteinAprilof

    2008(Arrington,2008).Assuch,ithasbeenthefocusofmuchoftheresearchexamining

    theimpactsofSNSuse.

    Researchonuseofsocialnetworksiteshasproliferatedinrecentyears,whichisnot

    surprisinggiventheirrapidadoptionbyusersaroundtheworld.Anearlierreviewof

    researchonSNSusebyboyd&Ellison(2007)outlinedfourbroadareasofwork:

    Impressionmanagementandfriendshipperformance.Researchhereisconcerned

    withhowusersconstructonlineidentities,howusersmanipulateSNSprofiles,and

    howaspectsofprofiles,includingimagesoffriendsinfluencefriendshipformation

    andothers'impressionsofSNSusers(boyd,2008;boyd&Heer,2006;Marwick,

    2005;Tongetal.,2008;Waltheretal.,2008).

    Networksandnetworkstructure.Researchinthisarealooksatthestructureof

    networks,withinsightsintonetworkstructureandvisualizationsmadepossibleby

    theavailabilityoflinkdatainSNSs(Hogan,2008;LibenNowelletal.,2005)

    Bridgingonlineandofflinenetworks.Thiswork,expandeduponbelow,largely

    exploresthenatureoftiesinSNSs,withmanystudiesarguingthatsiteslike

    Facebookareusedtomaintainorextendconnectionstoexistingoffline

    relationships(Choi,2006;Ellisonetal.,2007;Lampeetal.,2006).

    Privacy.ResearchersinthisareahavefocusedontheextenttowhichSNSusers

    revealpersonalinformation,exposingthemselvestosuchproblemsasidentitytheft

    (Gross&Acquisti,2005).Additionalworkattemptstoexplainwhyusersarewilling

    torevealsuchinformationinSNSsites,whentheymightotherwiseseektoprotect

    theirprivacyelsewhereontheInternet(Acquisti&Gross,2006;Dwyeretal.,2007;

    Stutzman,2006).

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    AfocusofmuchoftheresearchonSNSsseekstoexplainhowusersderivebenefitsfrom

    theirparticipationinsocialnetworksitecommunities.Inparticular,thisresearchstream

    exploreshowSNSshelpusersaccumulatesocialcapital(Ellisonetal,2007;Steinfieldetal.,

    2008).Inthenextsection,wereviewthiswork,whilealsobrieflyintroducingthenotionof

    socialcapitalandexplainingitsrelevancetothestudyofonlinesocialnetworksites.

    3.SocialCapitalandtheInternet

    Thetermsocialcapitalhasbeenwidelyusedtorefertotheaccumulatedresourcesderived

    fromtherelationshipsamongpeoplewithinaspecificsocialcontextornetwork(Coleman,

    1988;Bourdieu,2001,Lin,2001;Portes,1998;Putnam,2000).Althoughsomehave

    expressedconcernthattheconceptlackstheoreticalandoperationalrigorforexample,

    Portes(1998)notesthatconceptualizationsofsocialcapitalcanalternativelyrefertothe

    mechanismsthatgenerateit(relationships),ortheoutcomesthesheervolumeofworkon

    socialcapitalinmanydifferentdisciplinesoverthepastthreedecadessuggestsits

    potentialutility(Adler&Kwon,2002).

    Twofrequentdebatesintheliteratureinvolvewhethersocialcapitalisanindividualora

    collectivelevelphenomenon(Lin,2001),oristheresultofhavinganabundanceofstrong

    orweakties(Burt,2000).Regardingtheformerissue,Putnam(2000),tendstoviewsocial

    capitalasacommunitylevelquality,andlamentsitsdeclineincommunitiesacrossthe

    UnitedStates.However,othersociologistslikeBourdieu(2001),althoughconceptualizing

    socialcapitalasaqualityofacollective,suggestthatindividualspossessvaryingquantities

    ofitbyvirtueofbeingqualifiedmembersofthecollective.Thisenablesindividualsto

    accessthegroupforfavorsofvaryingsorts,therebyconvertingsocialcapitalintoeconomic

    capital.Bourdieutheorizesthat,"Thevolumeofsocialcapitalpossessedbyagivenagent

    thusdependsonthesizeofthenetworkofconnectionshecaneffectivelymobilizeandon

    thevolumeofthecapitalpossessedinhisownrightbyeachofthosetowhomheis

    connected."(p.103).Thisprocessrequiresinvestmentinsocialrelationsovertime,as

    pointedoutagainbyBourdieu:"...other[goodsandservices]canbeobtainedonlybyvirtue

    ofasocialcapitalofrelationshipsthatcannotactinstantaneously...unlesstheyhavebeen

    maintainedforalongtime...atthecostofaninvestmentinsociability..."(p.106).

    Thisinstrumentalnotionofindividualinvestmentiscentraltolaterworkonsocialcapital

    byLin(2001),whoseesasitscentralpremisethatindividualspursue"investmentinsocial

    relationswithexpectedreturns"withtheideathat"individualsengageininteractionsand

    networkinginordertoproduceprofits."(p.6).AccordingtoLin,resourcesembeddedin

    socialrelationsenhanceoutcomesbyfacilitatingtheflowofinformation(e.g.about

    opportunities),exertinginfluence(e.g.hiringafriendofafriend),clarifyingsocial

    credentials(e.g.signifyingthatsomeonedoesindeedhaveaccesstoresourcesstemming

    fromagroupthatstandsbehindthem),andreinforcingidentityandrecognitionthatcan

    contributetoanindividual'ssensethatthesocialgroupistheretoprovideemotional

    support.

    Thedebateoverwhethersocialcapitalderivesfromadensenetworkofstrong

    relationships,orfromaloosersetofweakonescanbetracedbacktoGranovetter's(1973)

    conceptualizationofthestrengthofweakties.Granovetter(1973)examinedthenotionof

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    tiestrength,whichhedefinedasacombinationoftheamountoftime,emotionalintensity,

    intimacy,andreciprocityinagivenrelationship.Hearguedthatweaktiesaremorelikely

    topromotethediffusionofnonredundantinformation,aseachtieislikelytobeconnected

    tootherswhoarenotalsodirectlyconnectedtoaparticularperson.Ontheotherhand,that

    person'sstrongtiesarelikelytobeconnectedtoeach,suggestingthatmuchofthe

    informationflowingthroughthiscloseknitnetworkofrelationshipsisredundant.

    LaterworkbyPutnam(2000)conceptualizedtwodistinctformsofsocialcapitalone

    emanatingfromweakti