My Thoughts on Social Capital

I understand that social capital is a somewhat loosely defined term, but in essence it can be thought of as relating to the networks you form with other people. Naturally the best context for this is in social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. In theory, people who obtain lots of followers, aside from just monetary gain, would benefit from the collection of strong and weak connections with all of those people. Weak connections have the advantage of being very numerous. If you are an average citizen on, say, LinkedIn, and you are looking for a job as a programmer, you might just find a friend of a friend who can get a good word put in for you. This sort of thing isn’t even rare; my Career Planning professor couldn’t shut up about it. On the other hand, if you are an Instagram star with a large fanbase, you could potentially exploit your influence to encourage your fans to support a political candidate or donate to a GoFundMe page, and do other things of that nature. With our lives increasingly tied to the internet, it’s not unrealistic to expect that internet stars become bigger than movie stars and radio hosts and TV personalities. All of these other occupations are relics of the old media establishment, or we might even call it the pre-internet establishment. What we’ve always seen with the facets of the pre-internet establishment, TV, radio, etc, is that they are primarily one-way communication mediums that aren’t suitable for networked communication. Whether or not social media figures overcome this limitation is something that’s up for debate. While these figures technically have the capability of reaching out to individual followers, stars with a huge audience can’t send a personalized message to every one of their fans. But this would be an unrealistic expectation, as it’s not so much about the limitations of the internet as it is about the limitations of human beings. In that sense, the internet can actually be seen as the pinnacle of communication technology, where the only limit on how many people you can reach out to is however long it takes for you to get exhausted creating messages. So we ought to treat the internet as the next big leap that acts as a new frontier for celebrities to come to prominence.

The word celebrity might carry the connotation that I’m talking about a person who gained fame through the traditional media establishment, like through the television and film industries, or about a politician or a person who is rich or a person who is powerful, but internet celebrities might not have anything to do with those things. Sometimes average citizens become internet celebrities by creating content that resonates with people on social media and gradually obtaining social capital (like in the case of the actress behind lonelygirl15).

The trouble as I see it is that there are always going to be a lot of people like me, who don’t manage to either consume the content on these social networking sites or produce content for them. Or at the very least, don’t manage to do these things to the extent that most people do. And people who try very hard to become popular won’t manage to do so without the courage to face the risk of being rejected. As social capital comes to be recognized by scholars and economists as this potentially game changing concept, social capital is actually effectively cut off to those who just aren’t the right personality type for social networking sites. Social capital always disproportionately benefited those of a more extroverted nature, but advancements in technology may threaten to magnify that disparity. Many dialogues concerning the potential of new technology to create a dystopian future focus on the idea that social media reduces the amount of quality face-to-face interaction. But perhaps instead we should be more concerned about those who find themselves unwilling or unable to participate in online social networks.

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