Challenges of Building Social Capital Online

15 August 2011

Last week, I opined on the decay and potential renewal of “social capital” in America. As chronicled by Robert D. Putnam, tectonic shifts in American culture, society and the economy led to decreased participation in civic organizations and dissipated communities, which in turn weakened the social fabric that holds together American life. In that introductory post, I proposed the online sphere as an alternate “public space” to strengthen (not replace) offline communities, and to put forward a few questions, the first of which I’ll try to answer here: How can new technologies help foster civic engagement and create social capital, without detracting from the same?

I’m not blindly sanguine about the impact technology can and will have on human relationships and society. We can sit at a bus stop in New York and video chat with a friend in Morocco or Thailand– a phenomenon that by historical standards might fairly be considered a miracle– but that same act can make us blind to the world at our feet. A few months back, the New York times ran an article describing “parallel play” in the fully wired (er, wireless) American home. Perhaps you know the scene: a family is gathered together in the home for the evening, but the room is quiet, each individual gazing, grimacing, giggling at their respective device, headphones in. These scenes are creepy, and they should serve as a reminder that just as these tools have the potential to bring people together, so too can they divide us and make us distant from those right around us.

“Go online to get offline” is a catchy phrase (and has been adopted by sites like and dating site HowAboutWe to describe their approach), but it’s perhaps the most concise summation of the social potential I see in network– and especially mobile– technologies. I’m not interested in online qua online. Purely online activities can have their value, but they’re unlikely to build social capital. An online protest never threatened any existing power structure. An online church service isn’t going to build a strong community. And I tend to find that even online conversation can only sustain a personal relationship, rarely build one. Rather, I see potential where online human networks intersect with offline, “real world” communities.

Kickstarter is crowd-sourced fundraising tool, giving small projects– often in film and the arts– a platform to raise a bit of money and, in the process, introduce people to their work. Of course, giving money doesn’t necessitate any deeper engagement, but Kickstarter can tie together a group of interested people around a project or performance– often with a social or local focus– that might not have otherwise come about. Meetup, mentioned above, is an online space that allows people with shared interests to find each other and arrange offline meetups to pursue their shared interests together. These are two well-known examples of online platforms that successfully facilitate offline activity.

There is a different issue, however, with platforms like these: they tend to bring together a narrow slice of a given population– groups of people who already have a great deal in common. Given the information flood that can overwhelm us online, most online spaces necessarily cater to very narrow segments of the population. There is certainly social value in convening all the dog-loving pescetarian chess players in a given town or city– “bonding social capital,” as defined by Putnam– but our tendency to self-segregate online can have limiting impacts. Eli Pariser has done excellent critical analysis of the impacts of what he calls the “filter bubble”– the internet’s tendency to funnel us toward a limited selection of familiar media and information that tend to reaffirm our existing viewpoints and put us in information silos that are hard to escape. I’m describing a similar version of the same thing– not about information and media, but about the same tendency of the internet to introduce us to people like us.

Bringing together a diverse community of people online is hard enough; bringing that into offline space is still harder. But, ultimately, that “bridging social capital” is where there is great potential to create social and civic good. Around what issues will diverse groups of people come together? What I will argue in my next post is that local issues– particularly urban, local issues– have the potential to engage and excite diverse groups and bring them together. And furthermore that mobile technology is uniquely suited to bridge the gap between groups, and between online and offline spaces.

As I said in my initial post, I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here– in the tech venture capital world, “local,” “mobile,” “location-based” and “social” are the hot words that everybody wants to be right now. I’m just hoping to push a little further down this road, and find out whether social capital, community engagement and civic good can be built in this way. Check back here next week for my next installment in this series.

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