Social Capital and Social Media

What is social capital and how does it relate to social media?

It’s extremely difficult to accurately define social capital.  Johnston and Percy-Smith (2003) examined the available theoretical definitions and found certain common factors surrounding the concept: networks (both strong and weak) through groups and relationships, reciprocity (an understanding that by building social capital with others, it would be returned), and trust (in the social environment and its values and norms).  The vast majority of the research emphasised the positive nature of social capital, although it may also cause exclusion from the group or pressure to conform within it (Portes, 1998).

So, how can this be applied to social media? It’s recognised that social capital does not exist at the same strength between each individual and group.  Rather, the strength of the network can be strong or weak depending on the relationship of its members: strong capital is associated with close friends and family (strong ties) and weak (bridging) capital from indirect, secondary relations (weak ties).  However, on social media, context collapse occurs, audiences are larger and there are new forms of communication (Utz and Muscanell, 2015, p.420).

This begs the question; can tie strength change due to social media, or, at the very least, can additional benefit be gained from weak ties? Vitak (2014) found technology certainly helps weak ties to strengthen, through increased visibility and enhanced interactions.  In turn, this will increase the amount of social capital that can be given and received.  I also wonder whether context collapse can increase ties: for example, a member of Facebook may post a status asking for help with a problem.  Ordinarily, help would be offered by close members of the writer’s community.  However, should an acquaintance who happens to be Facebook friends see the post, and offer help, would this ‘elevate’ the acquaintance to the level of a primary (strong) relationship?

It would also be interesting to explore the effects of specific platforms on social capital and the maintenance of ties.  Moll et al (2014) argues that self-disclosure forms an important part of building and maintaining ties.  If we assume that certain sites lend themselves more to personal disclosure it would then follow that those same sites enabled better maintenance of ties, and, by extension, social capital. Marwick and Boyd (2010) found communication on Facebook was likely to be more personal than on Twitter as writers varied their self-presentation (p.12), indicating a difference in tie maintenance, while Vitak (2012) found that audience size and diversity across different platforms did affect the types of networking and, consequently, the quality of social capital.

There are additional social capital benefits that are specific to the design of social media sites.  New (weak) relationships can develop, while pre-existing relationships can move in different directions (Burns, 2012).  Take the example (used by Burns) of a new university undergraduate: Facebook allows that new undergraduate to rapidly connect with fellow students, as well as maintain connections from home, thus maintaining previous connections and forming new weak ties, which can lead into new social capital.


Burns, L. 2012. Bowling online: How the internet is driving the reinvigoration of American social capital. Working Paper. University of Bristol.

Johnston, G and Percy-Smith, J. 2003. In Search of Social Capital. Policy & Politics, 31, pp. 321-34.

Marwick, A and Boyd, D. 2010. I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society. 13, pp.96–113.

Moll et al. 2014. Trust into Collective Privacy? The Role of Subjective Theories for Self-Disclosure in Online Communication. Societies. 4, pp.770–784.

Portes, A. 1998. Social capital: its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology. 24. pp.1–24.

Utz, S and Muscanell, N. 2015. Social Media and Social Capital: Introduction to the special Issue. Societies5(2), pp.420-424

Vitak, J. 2012. The Impact of Context Collapse and Privacy on Social Network Site Disclosures. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 56(4), pp.451-470

Vitak, J. 2014. Unpacking Social Media’s Role in Resource Provision: Variations across Relational and Communicative Properties. Societies. 4, pp.561–586.



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