Facebook: The social capital network?

Thu, 11 Oct 2012

Jackie Pichette
Research and Communications Officer, SFU Public Square

Several years ago I was introduced to a new website, just for university students, called “Facebook”. Today I can count on one hand the number of my close friends and family members without a Facebook profile.

Yes, Facebook is among the most trafficked websites in the world, and as the site’s usage has continued to increase, it’s potential to expand our networks and connect us with new people and ideas has been celebrated and anticipated. But has the social network lived up to its potential?

Being exposed to diversity is key to building the kind of social capital that Robert Putnam describes as necessary for building connected, vibrant and democratic communities. Unfortunately, it seems the sorts of situations that enable interactions with difference (different perspectives, different people, different cultures) are happening less and less. To illustrate his point, Putnam describes how bowling has increasingly become something we do alone or with friends, as opposed to on teams and in leagues.

The research I’ve done shows that, Facebook, despite having the potential to connect individuals across diverse communities, is not unlike bowling alone. When most of us add Facebook “friends” we do so to connect with someone we’ve already met or know well; and even then there’s no guarantee that we’ll interact with them or their ideas. Many of us are guilty of periodically “cleansing” our friend list, or opting to “hide” the updates of those friends we don’t always agree with, understand or find particularly interesting. Indeed, Facebook users are constantly filtering and limiting the people, information and amount of diversity they encounter on the site.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad news story. Being able to keep in touch with close friends and family is a wonderful thing! But it does suggest that anyone who thought Facebook and similar social media would be the key to broadening our perspectives, increasing our acceptance of diversity, and re-building a democratic culture of engagement may have been overly optimistic. (I haven’t conducted the same sort of research on Twitter, but I would be surprised if most users were following people whose views they disagree with or whose interests don’t converge.)

It seems to me, that if we hope to build the kind of social capital needed to create a more connected and civically engaged community, we have to find ways of enabling more of those interactions with the diversity that people used to encounter bowling in teams and leagues. We have to get people engaging with difference, relating with people they probably wouldn’t add on Facebook or follow on Twitter. We may have to (gasp!) remind ourselves how to connect and engage off-line…