erova notebook • a user experience blog by Chris Avore

Field Trip: Social Capital and Computer Mediated Communication

Only a few days from returning from the IA Summit in Denver, I continue attempting to distance myself from focusing exclusively on design lectures back home in the New York and New Jersey area.

Whereas last month I ventured uptown to attend a lecture on Erving Goffman and technologically mediated social identities, this time I headed a few miles south to the Rutgers School of Communication and Information to attend another discussion tangentially relevant to my daily work responsibilities as a social interaction design strategist.

The School hosted Dr. Gustavo Mesch, a senior lecturer and former chair of the departments of sociology and anthropology at the University of Haifa in Israel, where he presented “Media Use and Social Capital: Results from a Longitudinal Study in Israel”.

As his research is still underway, Dr. Mesch discussed the patterns he is already witnessing throughout the initial months of his investigation.

The discussion focused on the results of a survey Dr. Mesch has been collecting that asks students to self-identify their use and engagement with social tools and the benefits derived from participating in these social interactions and social relationships—to some people those benefits are defined as social capital (others agree it’s the availability of otherwise inaccessible information or opportunity based on your social structures and your standing in those structures and not necessarily the fruit of those connections).

The study is comprised of survey questions asking the participants to rate their relationships with the people whom they send emails, exchange instant messages and for whom they leave comments on Facebook posts and blog articles. The survey asked questions about how the participants trusted the people they were involving themselves with, including prior to the computer-mediated exchanges if relevant.

Dr. Mesch’s concluded that the people using email and IM with people they identified as friends people they know well reported greater bonding. But on Facebook, various blogs, and also email, they reported greater bridging of weaker connections.  Greater study over time, however, was necessary to validate his findings.

As a dilettante hack who hasn’t attended a formal sociology class since the 1990s, I feel a bit insecure voicing questions about the material, the findings, and the decision-making involved in arriving at the presented conclusions, but nonetheless I have a few concerns regarding the study and what else could have been (or should be) investigated further. I should also note my reactions are based only on what was presented in the lecture.  I haven’t read nor am I aware of any published analysis of the research since much of it is still underway.

Questioning Facebook and Instant Messenger

For instance, there doesn’t seem to be much depth in claiming IM strengthens connections you already have and a social platform like Facebook bridges new connections between friends of friends. After all, most instant messaging tools require you know you you’re going to communicate with in one-to-one dialogue, or among groups of people with whom you likely are already connected. Rather than using closed-network tools such as IM, I would have liked to see how public networks influence participants’ perception of social capital and what they disclose to strong and weak ties.  From a personal standpoint, I would be quite interested in reading a similar study as Dr. Mensch’s analysis but investigating a system similar to Yammer, where there is already closure amongst networks but holes to be crossed via social tools).

Facebook also has problems as a tool to identify weak ties and their influence on a person’s social capital within his or her network. Facebook networks are by nature homophilous, particularly, I would venture, among teens who have yet to move from one region to another or who have changed multiple jobs over time. The study’s subject and the weak tie may not know each other, but it’s challenging to argue Facebook is bridging network holes—it’s simply introducing people within an existing social structure.

The trouble with Facebook continues because the study doesn’t identify how participants established their privacy settings and their motivations for applying those settings. As a result, we miss key understanding into how they perceive people they don’t know who know their friends.

I’m also having trouble understanding why Dr. Mesch elected to use blogs to mediate connections between people instead of other technical systems or platforms. But even if the study had its reasons for not using Twitter, Instagram, or even MySpace, the presentation doesn’t address other questions that could directly influence the conclusions. What are the topics discussed on the blog? How is traffic driven to these blogs? Are there already existing weak connections between the authors and the audience?

Questions of Trust

I also have my reservations with a few of the survey questions. Specifically, there were multiple questions that seemed to ask how participants expected to “trust” the people with whom they communicated via these tools.

My friend Thomas Vander Wal’s concerns with trust stem from using the word as a catch-all for other terms that more accurately portray how a person really feels about the pending interaction. When combining ‘trust’ as a catch-all term and understanding how it relates to social capital, we venture into murky waters where we may be find conclusions drawn on obfuscated testimony.

By retreating to ‘trust’ we strip out nuance and detail into the relationship between the study’s subject and the person with whom he or she communicates.  Is this ‘trusted’ person one of authority or influence? How does trust reflect the ability for the subject to access resources otherwise unavailable for someone else?

Often I refer to Nan Lin’s definition of trust when applied to social capital as:

Defined as confidence or expectation that an alter will take ego’s interests into account in exchanges. It represents faith that an event or action will or will not occur, and such faith is expected to be mutual in repeated exchanges (Lin 147)

But again we are left to fill in the blanks since the study doesn’t describe any analysis into what future interactions may have been reasonably predicted or what interests are mutual. Even simpler, the study doesn’t establish an agreed upon definition of trust across participants.

Questions of Motivation and Benefit

If the premise of social capital is an investment in social relations with expected returns in the marketplace (Lin 19), I would have expected the study to probe deeper into why the teenage participants were motivated to communicate via Facebook, IM, email, and blogs beyond conversation or collaborative co-working.

With a clearer understanding of why the teens were posting, we could then understand more articulate insight into the benefits as a result of communicating via social tools.

Javier Velasco’s presentation Posting Our Hearts Out: Understanding Online Self-Disclosure for Better Designs at the 2011 IA Summit explored the personal motivations of why people (Velasco’s research focused on experienced adults who publish intimate information in public spaces—a potentially significant difference than those participants in Dr. Mensch’s study) use social tools to communicate, including such benefits as reciprocity, impression formation, relationship maintenance & formation, and social influence. Those benefits, of course, all can shape social capital, but go unmentioned in the Mensch analysis (and likewise, are not referred to as influencing social capital in Velasco’s presentation either).

Similar to my trip to Columbia for the Goffman discussion, I left with more questions than when I arrived on campus, which, ultimately, is worth the price of admission.  Reacting to what I perceive are gaps in the analysis, or looking for where the study could be more clear or more direct, helps me attempt to articulate and clarify the ideas that previously have been locked in my head. Though I hope I’m not completely off base, sharing the ideas in this venue is a reflective practice, if not necessarily an accurate account of an academic experience (so please take a second if you find my arguments thin, uninformed, or unclear).

The next field trip is April 18, when I’ll visit the Princeton sociology department to attend Princeton Dialogues: The Entrepreneurial Group: Social Identities, Relations, and Collective Action by Martin Ruef.

  • Entwisjj

    I can appreciate your interest in and questioning motive, benefit, and trust when it pertains to social capital in certain social media outlets or engines. What I feel to be critical underpinnings to new social experiences and connections in the blogosphere and even facebook (not so much IM) is the reality or perception of anonymity. As bloggers post, and FB friends of friends comment on everyday issues, they can engage in conversation or exchange ideas and viewpoints with, at least a perceived safety blanket of anonymity. What has been your experience in observing the collection of or expenditure of social capital in these relative new outlets and platforms? As Velasco no doubt touches on, adults new to these arenas probably routinely exhaust social capital by excessive disclosure of intimate items or personal ideals in digital public forums, that would otherwise be off limits in a conventional “public” avenue. I can only imagine, that as children and teenagers grow up connected to and aware of engagement and consequences within these social media outlets, they have a better grasp on and inherently better language and filters for retaining social capital.

  • Mia Green

    I agree with Dr. Mesch, blogs are more trusted than other social media platforms. If you prefer to go with the Social Media trend, I’d say use it wisely but don’t stop investing in your own website.
    Mia @ Bow Strings