By Guest Author Clara Shih
Excerpt from Chapter 3, “Social Capital from Networking Online”
One important way the online social graph is manifesting itself in the sociology of business is in facilitating the accumulation of social capital… Early research already shows that bringing networks online makes people more capable and efficient at accumulating, managing, and exercising social capital. Consciously or unconsciously, people are using sites like Facebook and LinkedIn as tools for maximizing their social capital from relationships.
Establishing a New Category of Relationships
For people you see every day, your close friends and family, your boss, co-workers, and neighbors, Facebook and MySpace—while perhaps an important part of your interactions—don’t make or break your relationships. No matter what, these people will be a part of your life, they will still be your friend or daughter or co-worker, as it were.
For your weak ties, it’s a different story. It is for relationships on the fringe that online social networking can make a world of difference. Weak ties include people you have just met, people you met only a few times, people you used to know, and friends of friends. Prior to the online social networking era, most of us just didn’t have the capacity to maintain these relationships, nor sufficient knowledge or prescience to know which ones might become valuable in the future. [Yet] it is precisely our weak ties that carry the greatest amount of social capital. Weak ties act as crucial bridges across clumps of people, providing an information advantage to network members.
Online social networks have defined a new kind of relationship—like the Facebook Friend and LinkedIn Connection—that is more casual and therefore makes it possible to maintain a greater number of weak ties. [It] has become socially acceptable to initiate lower-commitment relationships with people we would not have kept in touch with in the past. A Facebook Friend might be someone you met at a party last weekend over a couple beers. A LinkedIn Connection could be someone you met at a conference or on a plane with whom you established a good rapport. Instead of letting that momentary rapport go to waste, you can “file it away” for later. Instead of losing a large, potentially valuable pool of fringe contacts over a lifetime, it is now possible to accumulate these lightweight relationships as social capital “options” you may want—but are not obligated—to exercise later. Twitter takes this even further by allowing one-sided relationships: Person A can “follow”—that is, subscribe to updates from—Person B without Person B having to return the favor. Person B may not personally know any of her followers, but it doesn’t matter. She still has a very intimate way of communicating and connecting with her fans.
How is this possible? Before, the notion of “keeping in touch” was hard work. It required one if not both parties to actively pursue contact on an at least somewhat regular basis. Communication required time and planning. Social networking sites, on the other hand, are designed for easy, lightweight, ad hoc communication. Facebook is CRM for the masses [that is] fun and intuitive, visual, active, searchable, and self-updating. In addition to providing an easy-to-use contact database, social networking sites like Facebook have invented new modes of interaction that make it faster, easier, and more efficient to communicate with contacts [including] photos, status messages, and Facebook pokes, that are replacing and augmenting our traditional communications arsenal.
At their core, social networking sites are relationship tools that allow us to be both more aware and better able to engage with our outer networks. By reducing the cost of interaction and the cost of maintaining a relationship, sites like Facebook and LinkedIn help increase our network capacity to include otherwise-foregone fringe relationships. As a result, we can capture more of the full value of our cumulative lifetime social network (see Figure 3.1).
Online social networking sites like Facebook are like contact databases that increase our capacity to maintain relationships. We potentially no longer have to forego as many fringe, “long tail” relationships.