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Increase and Decrease in Social Capital Essay

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The definition of ‘social capital’ is easiest to define when looking at both words separately. Essentially, the ‘capital’ is the breadth, number and subsequent advantages of ‘social’ bonds. As sociologist John Fielding puts it, “Its central thesis can be summed up in two words: relationships matter.” (Field, J (2008). Social Capital. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. 1). These relationships may manifest themselves in numerous social contexts, such as in work, family, academic endeavors and so on. Regardless of context, the benefits that Fielding alludes to, and what really ‘matters’, are the accumulative efforts of social groups and the advantages they hold over individual labour.

Social capital is especially applicable to our online social networks, and this essay will be analysing cases that support or reject the statement: ‘The internet has been linked both to increases and decreases in social capital’ (Ellison & Steinfield, 2007).

Despite existing since the 1960s, the level of integration within society that the Internet maintains now has only been achieved within the last decade.

The flourish of social networking sites that make the Internet such a pivotal tool in our interactions with one another began around the turn of the millennia. Since the inception of sites like MySpace in 2003, the concept of a website where users may display their details and interact with one another has been capitalised on. These networks, often establishing themselves in the form of blogs paved the way to what are now fast becoming our online identities. The emergence of Facebook is exemplary of how online interaction has grown into a social institute. ‘Created in 2004, by 2007 Facebook was reported to have more than 21 million registered member generating 1.6 billion page views each day‘ (Needham & Company, 2007). It is clear from Facebook’s purpose that the avenues of social capital are fortified and strengthened by online social networks. The widespread use of Facebook has revolutionised many aspects of social interaction.

Event organization for example, is now almost reliant on Facebook for it’s success. Facebook’s usage has reached such frequency from the population that it is now an eligible and required source of investigation for crime. The positive effects from this are outlined in the statement ‘Social Capital has been linked to a variety of positive social outcomes, such as better public health, lower crime rates, and more efficient financial markets (Adler & Kwon, 2002). At its core, Facebook exists to support networks of friends (initially college students), and in this sense it promotes social capital by enabling distance-independent communication. Despite these obvious virtues of Facebook however, there is some opposition to the idea that it promotes social capital. Donath and Boyd (2004) argue that social network websites do not promote social capital and societal bonds. Instead, they merely sustain weak, superficial bonds due to the ease and facile nature of online interactions.

Examples of this are ‘liking’ friend’s photos, liking status’ and playing games with other Facebook friends. Bargh and McKenna (2004) argues that ‘Internet use distracts from face-to-face time with others, which might diminish an individual’s social capital’. However, it appears this thesis received criticism from Wellman, Haase and Witte who believe that ‘online interactions may supplement or replace in-person interactions, mitigating any loss from the time spent online’. These statements pronounce information on the rocketing popularity of social networking and how it has become the first choice of communication. Another factor to consider is online shopping. EBay is an online auction website where users can bid on items that other users are selling, users can contact each other about the product they are bidding/buying, this is considered a weak connection.

EBay has over 14 million active users has is increasingly growing, one would consider that this increases their social capital, an arguments to support this statement is that EBay is a professional business and has rules and regulations to follow if you are a user, these guidelines also state that you should ‘contact the intellectual property owner with any questions before listing’ which encourages and promotes contacting another seller before, during and after you have purchased their product. Harrison (1998) suggested that it is possible to build social capital in the short term and that this is also known as capacity building EBay stems relationships on the Internet by having your favoured users option, this helps you to revisit any company or professional individual you liked shopping with and gives you the opportunity to view other items they have for sale which would increase one’s individual social capital. However, Kotha et. Al. (2004), denies this and leads on to say ‘customer and relationship services provide a competitive edge for ecommerce traders.

These two communicational factors were found to be more beneficial in creating a long term competitive edge than web site usability and product selection, which may provide short term gain but will not create social capital with the user or give them an emotional connection with the brand or product’ (Kotha, S., Rajgopal, S., Venkatachalam, M., (2004) The role of online buying experience as a competitive advantage: evidence from Third Party ratings for ecommerce firms, The Journal of Business, 77) It has also become clear when researching Social Capital that people argue that you cannot measure the increase in Social Capital, it has been argued that ‘without measurement, change cannot be determined’ (Suna, B. (2011). Building Social Capital. http://www.socialcapitalresearch.com/building.html.). Also, according to Putnam (1993), ‘social capital is largely determined by historical factors; it can thus not be enhanced in the short term’. Putnam’s view is also fully supported by Schmidt (2000) and Uslaner and Dekker (2001). They considered social capital as a by-product of other social activities. This intends that websites such as EBay decrease social capital because there is only a short amount of contact with other people.

To support this, EBay’s purpose is for buying, selling and bidding. Once a user has bought a product, the probability that they will never get in contact with that user again is very high due to no face-to-face interaction, which makes it hard to build a relationship for some people. The outcome of this is not being able to maintain or create a strong bond between the two, thus decreasing Social Capital. The last factor to consider is News on the Internet. Having news on the Internet is a great way to increase Social Capital. Norris, (2001) argued that ‘the hope that the Internet would be especially useful in encouraging many people to join political discussions has not been realized’. Norris debates that the Internet is has allowed readers to comment on articles and even start discussions about the article they are reading, but not everyone takes advantage of this option. Discussions help build bonds within people who post comments because they are either supporting or arguing about the information at hand.

This does not necessarily mean they are building strong bonds, but a connection is made between many people that could not happen before the News was posted on the Internet. A following point is that the Internet is always accessible. Modern mobile phones now all have access to the Internet, therefore there is nothing stopping individuals obtaining the news. Smartphones have taken this one step further and created an application to access the news for free. Applications make it simpler for individuals to read the news, email articles to friends and express their opinion with the comment option. Smart phones have given individuals the access to enjoy news wherever they are. During these modern times, Law enforcements have taken to updating the news via social networks.

Updating social networks spread to a wider audience of readers, keeps readers aware of what is happening in the news and gives the opportunity for individuals to ask questions and in some cases help. This helps increase Social Capital, serious and local news can be discussed between readers and in some cases solve problems. For example, injecting the media sources with information of a missing person spreads the acknowledgment and creates more wide spread enforcements, which is shown in the following statement . ‘Subsequent researchers (Best & Dautrich, 2003; Kavanaugh, Reese, Carroll, & Rosson, 2005; Kobayashi, Ikeda, & Miyata, 2006; Räsänen & Kouvo, 2007) found that online communications have a positive effect on individuals’ social trust and participation in community life’ (Valenzuela, S., Park, N. and Kee, K. F. (2009), Is There Social Capital in a Social Network Site?: Facebook Use and College Students’ Life Satisfaction, Trust, and Participation; Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication) Overall, all these factors help increase social capital, because they are creating strong bonds between different people, most of who wasn’t aware of others existence.

Alternatively, News on the Internet can also decrease social capital. This is because there is again, no face-to-face interaction with other people, therefore making it hard to build relationships and bonds. Discussions can also lead to arguments on the Internet, the lack of face-to-face interaction gives some readers the confidence to vocalise opinions they would not necessarily vocalise when in physical contact with someone. The Internet for a lot of individuals is seen as a shield of protection, and a small percentage of people can voice hateful words on the Internet and no action can be taken. This decreases an individual’s Social Capital, because people would not want to create bonds with others with view on the Internet. In conclusion, the Internet has been linked to both increase and decrease Social Capital in numerous ways.

Social Networking has increased Social Capital by creating bonds between individuals with a variety of positive social aspects, maintaining old friendships and whilst enabling new ones. However, Social Networking also decreases Social Capital due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, and it is also argued that Social Networks ‘merely sustain weak, superficial bonds due to the ease and facile nature of online interactions’ (Donath and Boyd, 2004). Online shopping platforms have also increased Social Capital, EBay forces users to contact each other to ask about products they are selling, users bid/buy products and are sometimes in competition with other users to win the item.

This creates bonds between users even though they are weak. The decrease of Social Capital on EBay is the point of no face-to-face interaction, and after the transition is completed, there is no need for you to contact that user again, so this is an example of short term Social Capital. The last point discussed was News on the Internet, the increase of Social Capital in the news is the point of everyone being able to comment or discuss news stories. Alternatively, the decreasing affect of the news on the Internet is also an invitation for arguments and hurtful opinions.


Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social Capital and college students’ use of social networking sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), article 1.

(2005). What is Social Capital and how might it be used in Scotland’s schools? Available: http://www.ces.ed.ac.uk/PDF%20Files/Brief036.pdf.).

(Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007) ‘The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social Capital and college students’ use of online social network sites).

Donath, J., & Boyd, D. (2004). Public displays of connection. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 71–82.

Kotha, S., Rajgopal, S., Venkatachalam, M., (2004) The role of online buying experience as a competitive advantage: evidence from ThirdParty ratings for ecommerce firms, The Journal of Business, 77(S2), pp. 109-13.

Dekker, P & Uslaner, E (2001). Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life. London & New York: Routledge.

Kilpatrick, S. Falk, I. Harrison, L (1998). Learning in rural communities: a rapid economic change. Australia: Centre of Research and Learning in Regional Australia

Best, S., & Dautrich, K. (2003). Reinvigorating democracy: Generating social capital and political participation on the Internet. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Nashville, TN.

Kavanaugh, A., Reese, D., Carroll, J., & Rosson, M. (2005). Weak ties in networked communities. Information Society, 21, 119–131.

Kobayashi, T., Ikeda, K. i., & Miyata, K. (2006). Social capital online: Collective use of the Internet and reciprocity as lubricants of democracy. Information, Communication & Society, 9, 582–611.

Räsänen, P., & Kouvo, A. (2007). Linked or divided by the web Internet use and sociability in four European countries Communication & Society, 10, 219–241.


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