Why Friendster isn’t Social Capital

Talking to Jonas Luster a couple of weeks ago about the popularization of Social Capital and other social science concepts.
Jonas is frustracted that people confuse numbers of Orkut and Friendster connections with social capital itself. The problem, says Jonas, is that people mistake Friendster and other social networking sites for social capital. “We can not see Social Capital — we can only see its effects.”
Social capital is a measure of the strength of relationships and communities. It’s measured using factors including cohesion (would I lend you money or offer you my guest room if you were travelling), proximity (degree of separation) and density (do my friends know your friends).
But the Orkut/Friendster/weblog/wiki fans aren’t that far wrong, I don’t think.
Social network tools and structures are potential energy, and cohesion is kinetic energy.
New means of meeting and staying in touch — YASNS, email, weblogs, wikis, and meetups — give people more chances to create groups and build relationships.
We have a history of similar shifts. Cheap telephone connections let families stay in touch across distance. Television displaced vast quantities of social interaction, community-building, and cultural creativity with passive isolation.
Will today’s new tools have no effect, destructive, or constructive results for communities and connections?
I have an opinion. I have a company and several communities that communicate online often, and meet in person occasionally. I think the new patterns will give more people opportunities to strengthen ties across distance, and make in-person connections. When we lower the cost of networking, some of the connections are shallow, like Orkut friend requests, and some of them are deep, like the open source projects that power the internet.
Time will tell. We get to watch and participate.
p.s. Jonas also explained that there are two main ways to define social capital
* Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, sees Social Capital as an aggregate entity — a person or society can have strong or week social capital.
* Coleman sees Social Capital as being measured by the sum total of attributes — social prestige, family connections, business reputation etc.
The definition seems important if you’re doing social science research and want your numbers to add up, but they seem mathematically equivalent to me.

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