Posted by: Ray Brescia | May 8, 2018

The Strength of Digital Ties

In the 1970s, Mark Granovetter argued that it is our weak ties that benefit us more than our strong ties.  In other words, the individuals we know outside our immediate circle of friends are often in a better position to help us accomplish things like get a new job or find a place to live in a new city than our closest friends.  The reason for this is that it is likely that we know of and have access to the same resources as our closest friends; it is our more distant friends that open up new opportunities for us.  Because of this phenomenon, what Granovetter called “the strength of weak ties,” we are less likely to broaden our range of opportunities when we just rely on such close friends for assistance.  Similarly, in social capital theory, Robert Putnam would say that bridging social capital–the loose ties we possess that connect us to broader networks of trust–is more important for individuals and communities to advance collective goals than bonding social capital: i.e., the type of relationship that is found between close friends and immediate relatives and neighbors.   Communities and nations with more of this bridging form of social capital tend to be those where collective well-being is higher.  In Putnam’s landmark work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, he argues that social capital has diminished over the last forty years for several reasons, including: the advent of television which can distract people from the civic engagement that both leads to and is a product of social capital and the fact that many Americans are working longer hours than they did in previous decades and have longer commuting times each day.  His belief in the decline in social capital emerged on the brink of the digital age, and we are now at a place where more modern technologies than the television can certainly further reduce social capital, but can such technologies also enhance it?  In a piece recently published by the Dickinson Law Review, I argue that new, digital tools increase the capacity of individuals and communities to build social capital, but it is different from traditional social capital in a way.  What I call in the piece “synthetic social capital” is, perhaps, a new form of social capital that holds out the possibility that digital technology, through this new form of social capital, can help build the types of relationships that we see in more traditional settings where social capital flourishes.  It is also especially helpful for creating bridging social capital and converting latent, weak ties into active and strong/weak ties, the kind of ties Granovetter argued are more important for individual and community betterment.  By no means do digital tools like social media necessarily enhance social capital.  Instead, I argue that they can, if used in a mindful way that helps to build on, and not detract from, traditional forms of social capital.  I welcome feedback and reactions. Please check out the piece here.

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