Researchers see social-networking sites as effective mechanisms for "maintaining" and "bridging" social capital [source: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication].
© Photographer: Jaimie Duplass | Agency: Dreamstime
Social-networking sites help users "maintain" social capital by supporting existing offline relationships. For example, when a kid graduates from high school and goes to college, he's physically separated from his high school social network. But if his friends sign up for Facebook accounts, they can keep tabs on what everybody's doing.
Because of its original college focus, Facebook isn't necessarily representative of all social-networking sites. But research into how people use Facebook supports the idea that the site is important for maintaining the social capital from existing relationships.
When asked who they think is the audience for their Facebook profile, a survey group of college students came up with the following list, ranked from most likely audience to least likely:
- High school friends
- People in my classes
- Other friends
- Total strangers at same college
- Someone I met at a party
Other than "total strangers at same college," the other top five members of the Facebook audience are existing contacts from the offline world, some of them strong ties (high school friends, family) [source: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication].
Social-networking sites increase our capacity to form weak ties. On a social-networking site, you can add "friends" who like the same band, even though you know nothing else about them. It's not uncommon for frequent users of online social networks to have hundreds or thousands of "friends."
Some of these weak ties serve as "bridges" to other social networks and other types of social capital. An example of how bridging social capital works could be:
- You search for Portland gardens on photo-sharing site Flickr.
- You find some beautiful pictures of petunias from a user named Garden_geek.
- You invite Garden_geek to be your "friend."
- He sends you an e-mail inviting you to a local Portland gardening club.
- Garden_geek, a weak tie, has served as a bridge to new friends and new information about gardening -- more social capital!
Social-networking sites make invisible social networks visible by publicly displaying our connections to other people. According to researcher Danah Boyd, these public displays serve multiple purposes:
- We infer things about a person's political views, musical tastes and personality by seeing who his friends are.
- It's a way to establish trust. Example: If you know Sam, then you must be cool.
- It's a way to confirm identity. By listing hundreds of friends, you're saying that these people know me, therefore I must exist.
Future of Social-networking Sites
Social-networking sites are expanding rapidly to accommodate new users and adding new features daily, so it's difficult to say what the future holds.
Large corporations and organizations are tapping into the power of online social networking by adding social-networking components to their existing Web sites. Nike, for example, launched a community site called Joga to bring together soccer lovers from around the world. The idea is to build brand awareness and loyalty by creating an online destination where people want to hang out.
Another emerging trend is to "build your own" social network. Web sites like Ning and Me.com allow anyone to create or join stand-alone social networks built around specific themes or interests. Companies can use these sites to build social networks around their brand, or individuals can build more tightly focused communities than on the larger social-networking sites.
For lots more information about social networks and related topics, check out the links on the next page.