Facebook has become one of the most prominent social networking sites. The question of whether or not participants on these sites are being social and fulfilling their social needs has been questioned. Researchers have been looking into how social networking sites affect our sociability and social capital. An individual’s social capital, or the benefits gained from a relationship, is only affected by certain parts of social networking sites, which can be seen in a typical college student’s life.
According to Burke, Kraut and Marlow and their study on “Social Capital on Facebook: Differentiating Uses and Users” published in May 2011, not all usage on social networking sites is considered equally social. They define social capital as “the actual or potential resources, which are linked to a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition”. Their research shows that social capital can be characterized by two elements: bonding and bridging[i]. Bonding builds emotional support and companionship, while bridging offers access to new information. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. I can see this in my personal experience as well. Bonding can be seen best while one-on-one communicating, such as through live chat, messaging and wall posts, in which self-disclosure is common. Scrolling through Facebook news feeds and observing what your friends are doing best exemplify bridging social capital, because you are simply gaining new information.
On Facebook, there are three activities that affect social capital: directed communication with individual friends, passive consumption of social news, and broadcasting. The research continues to say that only directed communication is directly related to an increase in bridging social capital. I see this as a valid point because in my own experience, I gain the most from my Facebook friends that I directly message, increasing my social capital. A strong example of this is when a good friend of mine was attempting to win a contest in which she needed the most “likes” on her picture to win. I posted the link on my wall as a broadcast so people would see it and passively consume it as news. Then I personally messaged many friends the exact post from my wall, but through personally connecting with them, more responded and “liked” the photo. This shows that investing social capital can make for a greater return. My friend eventually won the contest. The individual messages increased the new information given to my Facebook friends, increasing the bridging social capital and benefiting me.
These individual messages also brought me closer to many of the high school friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Burke, Kraut and Marlow ‘s research confirms that friends communicating one-on-one through social networking sites were linked to positive outcomes, specifically “higher levels of bonding social capital and lower loneliness”. After messaging about the contest, I continued messaging a few friends and bonding social capital increased. However, those who spent a long time “passively consuming news reported lower bridging social capital and greater loneliness”. Watching the reactions of other students as they scroll through their newsfeeds without communicating one-on-one or commenting also agrees with this research. These students may feel left out and lonely if they see a conversation between their friends that they are not included in. Others who sit in their lonely dorm rooms all day do not experience an increase in social capital when they don’t pay specific attention to their newsfeed.
I believe that social networking sites and life work in the same way in the sense that “you get out what you put in”. If students, or anyone for that matter, put effort into communicating by sending individual messages, posting on friend’s walls, and live chatting, they will increase their social capital and communication skills. However, if they only sit and passively browse through their friends’ posts, they will not be any more social or gain anything from their Facebook friends. Social capital can increase an individual’s worldview, communication skills, and life satisfaction, especially if students are being proactive about it. Currently, social media is dominating on an international level. Gaining social capital from such a prominent part of society can only help in the long run and college students are doing exactly that; we are the future and social networking sites are changing our sociability for the better.
[i]Burke, M., Kraut, R., & Marlow, C. (2011, May). Social capital on Facebook: Differentiating uses and users. In Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 571-580). ACM.