Introduction

Over the past decade, the world is showing increasingly heightened amounts of connectedness. This has been enhanced mainly with the advent of ICTs which made it easier to create and sustain far-flung networks in which new kinds of social relationships are created. The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells coined the term network society to describe this societal phenomenon (Castells 2000). Analysing these network structures prevalent in society is important to understand the underlying socio-psychological cues that are taking shape. Previous research was focused on treating the online social network completely separate from the offline world (Naseri 2017). However, this presents a rather outdated view as the distinction between the online and offline networks is quite blurred. At present, the use of Social Network Services (SNSs) has enabled the efficient management of social networks and thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, this online social network very much permeates into the offline realm as well and the two can’t be treated independently.

The abstractions of triadic closure, strong and weak ties (Granovetter 1973; David and Jon 2010) provide a good basis for the analysis of social networks. In this article, these abstractions are given the added dimension of the notion of social capital in order to understand the socio-psychological attributes of present day social networks.

Social Capital

Firstly, what is capital? Capital consists of any human-centered asset that can enhance one’s power to grow and ensure stability. One way to look at it is capital growth enables the upwards progress in the Hierarchy of Needs (McLeod, n.d.) Social capital is one of four types of capital which broadly refers to "the norms and networks that facilitate a variety of social transactions and help individuals and groups to fulfil mutually held goals" (Schafft and Brown 2003). This notion is also captured by the age old adage it’s not what you know, but who you know. However, social capital is a notoriously hard term to define while going deeper into this generic idea. According to Pierre Bourdieu, social capital refers to "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition." (Naseri 2017) Thus, Bourdieu views social capital in terms of an individualistic, symbolic power, in that people with more social capital hold more power, enabling social stratification. Putnam, however, regarded social capital as an attribute of society. According to him, social capital refers to the "features of social organization- networks, norms, and trust-that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives" (Geber, Scherer, and Hefner 2016). In sum, social capital can be thought of as the resources available in networks of formal and informal relationships on which individuals and society as a whole can capitalize.

Mark Granovetter’s notion of strong and weak ties can also be embedded within our notion of social capital as the tension between closure and brokerage. Putnam elegantly defines these two as bonding social capital and bridging social capital (Naseri 2017; David and Jon 2010). Bonding social capital directly correlates to the notion of strong triadic closure and entrenchment property of social networks while bridging social capital refers to the weak ties that arise in social networks. Thus, bonding social capital refers to the entrenched networks which provide emotional support and trust and less novelty. Bridging social capital on the other hand yields informational gains but low emotional support. The focus of this article will be on how these forms of social capital is nurtured and cultivated via social networking services.

Impact of SNSs on Social Capital

SNSs are “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (Steinfield, Ellison, and Lampe 2008). The advent of such services has made implicit notions tied to social networks very much explicit. For example, as is well-known to users of social-networking tools, people maintain large explicit lists of friends in their profiles on these sites — in contrast to the ways in which such friendship circles were once much more implicit, and in fact relatively difficult for individuals even to enumerate or mentally access (David and Jon 2010). Similarly, engagement involves features such as liking, tagging etc. These notions introduced by SNSs have a profound impact on social capital via technology mediation.

Traditional research on social capital has shown the benefits people can get from their social networks; strong ties provide them with emotional support (bonding capital), and weak ties provide them with non-redundant information and different perspectives (bridging capital) (Utz and Muscanell 2015). However, these assumptions might no longer hold true as individuals now tend to have larger and more heterogeneous networks, and they can communicate in varied and newer ways than previously. Sites like Facebook enable directed communication and information sharing thus, research has shown that strong ties provide for both social and informational support, and also due to better relationship maintaining strategies, higher utility can be drawn from weak ties with social media (Utz and Muscanell 2015). Information obtained from entrenched networks on social media has a lesser tendency to be limited because of the sheer amount of weak ties available to each node of the entrenched network. This also means that the number of strong ties on these networks are far lower than the number of weak ties, as weak ties are easier to maintain unlike strong ties which require the continuous investment of time and effort to maintain. The causal dependency of traditional weak ties is also mitigated as they don’t require continuous maintenance to survive. Also, the rise of communities for particular causes which resonate with a user’s identity can allow them to join what seems to be an entrenched network, but with no necessity to continuously maintain and interact within the online community. Thus, weak ties can even provide a sense of emotional support along with informational gains. All this implies that the traditional distinctions of bonding and bridging capital and their analogy with strong and weak ties is hugely diffused (David and Jon 2010).

Another observation pertains to the effects of online disinhibition (Suler 2004). Social media is known to mobilise people for civic and political engagement easily. This is due to the fact that weak ties can easily be established and maintained on these services. However, the causal sustenance of these online movements is very limited due to various reasons including the technical designs of SNSs (Couldry 2015). However, the psycho-social impacts of disinhibition due to social media is another major factor. Longer term political campaigning requires sustained resources and higher amounts of strong ties which are hard to maintain on online social networks as seen earlier. However, thanks to the availability and transmission of information and the lack of restraint the user feels in online environments, it is easier to mobilise people for a short period of time. Putnam discusses that one major cause of decline in social capital is the constant and permanent reduction in number of individuals willing to join voluntary associations. SNSs make it easy to establish associations, however these are based on relatively weaker ties and lesser accountability and thus can attribute to the reduction of social capital in the longer term. Further research is needed to properly understand these effects.

It has also been shown that people with lower self-esteem tend to draw maximum utility from SNSs due to lower barriers for initiating communication leading to the formation of weak ties, mitigating fears of rejection (Steinfield, Ellison, and Lampe 2008). This provides evidence for the "poor-get-richer" theory. This has led to the massive permeation of SNSs in various dedicated spheres of our lives such as dating, professional networks etc. Notions of herding and territoriality is also present in the analysis of social capital facilitated by SNSs. Externally visible aspects of SNS behavior, including number of friends and posted pictures, were related to the explicit power motive, but time invested in SNS activity (to maintain relationships), a non-visible aspect of SNS behavior, was related to the explicit affiliation motive (Heser, Banse, and Imhoff 2015).

Conclusion

Social capital is a rather rich description of the underlying network structure for both individual nodes as well as a collection of nodes. Only primitive research has been done in this area as it is only recently that the implicit notions around social capital have become rather explicit thanks to the advent of SNSs. This article deals mainly with concepts related to tie strength which is just one metric of social capital. The notion of social capital thus provides a framework for thinking about social structures as facilitators of effective action by individuals and groups, and a way of focusing discussions of the different kinds of benefits conferred by different structures (David and Jon 2010).

References

Castells, Manuel. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. USA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.

Couldry, Nick. 2015. “The Myth of ‘Us’: Digital Networks, Political Change and the Production of Collectivity.” Information, Communication & Society 18 (6): 608–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2014.979216.

David, Easley, and Kleinberg Jon. 2010. Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Geber, Sarah, Helmut Scherer, and Dorothée Hefner. 2016. “Social Capital in Media Societies: The Impact of Media Use and Media Structures on Social Capital.” International Communication Gazette 78 (6): 493–513. https://doi.org/10.1177/1748048516640211.

Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78 (6): 1360–80.

Heser, Kathrin, Rainer Banse, and Roland Imhoff. 2015. “Affiliation or Power: What Motivates Behavior on Social Networking Sites?” Swiss Journal of Psychology 74 (January): 37–47. https://doi.org/10.1024/1421-0185/a000144.

McLeod, Saul. n.d. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.

Naseri, Samaneh. 2017. “Online Social Network Sites and Social Capital: A Case of Facebook.” Journal of Applied Sociology 7 (July). https://doi.org/10.5923/j.ijas.20170701.02.

Schafft, Kai, and David Brown. 2003. “Social Capital, Social Networks, and Social Power.” Social Epistemology 17 (October): 329–42. https://doi.org/10.1080/0269172032000151795.

Steinfield, Charles, Nicole Ellison, and Cliff Lampe. 2008. “Social Capital, Self-Esteem, and Use of Online Social Network Sites: A Longitudinal Analysis.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology - J APPLIED DEV PSYCHOLOGY 29 (September). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2008.07.002.

Suler, John. 2004. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” Cyberpsychology & Behavior : The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society 7 (July): 321–6. https://doi.org/10.1089/1094931041291295.

Utz, Sonja, and Nicole Muscanell. 2015. “Social Media and Social Capital: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Societies 5 (May): 420–24. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc5020420.