Smartphones have transported us from an offline third place

My new job has turned me back into a bus commuter for the first time in 7 years. My last experience as a daily bus rider was when I worked at Vision Critical for the first half of 2005, just after finishing my Ph.D.

Back then, I was fresh off grad school and the heady conversations about social capital that were all the rage in a certain corner of political science. That was especially true in my department, where the research for Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone employed half a generation of graduation students, including me. Putnam’s take on the Internet’s impact on social capital was ultimately more skeptical than my own, but the opportunity to research all the early investigations into that question fed my own practice for the next decade.

While Putnam addressed the emergence of online public spaces, he gave more attention to our offline civic culture — including the idea of the “third place” described by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg inspired his own torrent of research and experimentation, hinging on the argument that a healthy democratic culture requires “third places”, neither work nor home, in which conversation and community can unfold. Starbucks aspired to be be our contemporary version of the third space; others, like Howard Rheingold, have seen something of the third place in the emergent communities of the Internet.

In retrospect, the buses of 2005 were, if not a third place, then a two-and-a-halfed place. Two passengers might engage in a spontaneous conversation; one rider might help another lift a stroller onto a bus. If nothing else, random eye contact was a reminder that we are all in this together — quite literally, at least for the next twenty minutes.

What’s changed since 2005? The iPhone, the Blackberry, the advent of Android and the general onslaught of smartphone fixation — a fixation I share myself. Instead of looking up, out, or at each other, bus riders are engaged in their online lives. I hope they are spending that online time in meaningful third places, because we’ve just lost one offline.

Defining the impact of social media on social capital

What are your online friendships worth to the community you live in? That’s the practical question that is implicitly raised by Jon Hickman’s interesting and slightly perplexing post on Social capital & social media.

Hickman writes:

…as academics start to examine social media they are likely to think about social capital, and they are likely to read Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone. But Bowling Alone doesn’t talk about social capital in quite the same way that “the Internet” talks about it…if you’re looking to write about online culture, this framework is limited. You need Bourdieu.

Bourdieu defined social capital as the:

“aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu, 1986, p.248)

…For me this is social capital…a potential resource existed within a pre-existing community, and it was activated by a set of social media practices, delivering benefit to its collective owners. Without the social capital, the clever social media tools would be useless.

Full disclosure: I did the initial research for Putnam’s chapter on the Internet and social capital, and that research informed much of my subsquent work with social media But I think there’s more at stake here than academic wrangling over how social capital is best defined, or best understood in the context of social media.

My read of Jon’s argument is that social media can help to squeeze the latent social capital out of a given community, making it socially useful. It’s an argument that maps onto much of what I’ve seen online, from a spontaneous effort to collect clothes for homeless people to a self-organizing league of Green Lanterns protecting virtual refugees. These stories of organizing through social media often look a lot like a community in which social capital exists, but only becomes mobilized through the facility of the web.

Where the Hickman-Bourdrieu view hits its limits, in my view, is in identifying the potential for social media to create as well as activate social capital. If social media is just the ultimate juice machine for extracting existing social capital, then the scenario to beat is the one in which we extract or activate that capital offline. After all, it’s still much easier to see and understand the impact of community involvement when it happens offline, in the form of a community garden, soup kitchen or street demonstration.

But what if social media can actually generate social capital? If you look at social capital through the lens of Putnam’s definition (though not through his own analysis of the Internet’s impact on social capital, which was pretty skeptical) then you start to see social capital not as something that belongs to a person or even a collection of people but as something that lies in between those people: the network of relationships binding them together.

And if there’s one thing social media does well, it’s to make those networks wider and denser: more people are more connected than every before. Whether all those network connections translate into the creation of actual social capital — into the development of bonds of trust and community engagement — is still very much up for debate. But to the extent that we’re starting to see evidence that social media can actually create social capital, that’s a much stronger argument for the value of online interaction than simply seeing it as a way of extracting existing capital.

For policy-makers, organizational managers and community leaders, it’s an argument that we should encourage people to spend time using social media and social networks, in the belief that the connections forged online will create social capital that can benefit offline employers and communities.

And for POFEUs (Plain Old-Fashioned End Users, a.k.a. you) it provides yet another reason to stop apologizing for your life online. You’re not wasting time on Facebook: you’re creating social capital!