You are on page 1of 27

The Internet as a Tool to Restore Social Capital

By

Tyrone Schiff

Undergraduate Non-Fiction
2

Imagine if a tiny metal can were sent hurtling into space fifty years ago, and as a

result your country’s economy would be altered forever, society would function

differently, and the political system would be forever changed. Anyone who is familiar

with an instrument known as the Internet should be aware of its immense clout and power

over a variety of elements that make up today’s world. The metal can was none other than

the first satellite launched into space, Sputnik 1. In order to regain the technological lead

in the arms race, Dwight Eisenhower, the president at the time, launched a project that

eventually led to the Internet, which debuted in October, 1969. Since then, the network

has gone through a number of evolutions that have brought it to its current state. The

Internet is a resource used by a tremendous amount of people around the world, and

substantial data reveals that increases in social capital is related to mankind’s usage of the

Internet (Taube, 235). It is evident that the Internet is a resource that has the power to

restore the social capital that has been lost in recent decades.

The Decline of Social Capital

In order to better understand the concepts that are going to be dealt with in this

paper, the discussion of the Internet’s positive role on social capital will begin with some

definitions of both social capital and the Internet. The concept of social capital is still a

rather new one. In fact, the concept of social capital only “arose in the 1980s, as a number

of social scientists considered the role of interpersonal relations in human and social

development” (Warschauer, 316). The most significant aspect of social capital that makes

it differ from human capital, which involves individual skills or knowledge, or physical

capital, like financial assets, is the fact that social capital is the “capacity of individuals to
3

accrue benefits by the dint of their personal relationships and memberships in particular

social networks and structures” (Warschauer, 316). Furthermore, there is a definite link

between the individual and his or her own community and environment. Social capital

occurs in a variety of different forms too. For instance, “if a friend provides information

about a possible job […] if a parent offers high educational expectations, opportunities,

and support to a child […] if a government bureaucrat can be trusted to do what he says,”

these are all different types of social capital (Warschauer, 316). As indicated by these

examples, social capital needs some sort of connection between two or more individuals.

However, when social capital is strengthened between individuals, it also affects the

larger community (Warschauer, 316). A community can be affected by social capital due

to the intrinsic connection between social capital and civic engagement. Social capital

helps promote civic engagement, because it provides insight, perspective, and resources

to tackle issues of concern (Warschauer, 317). The term, “social capital” was actually

coined by Robert Putnam, who is a professor of public policy at Harvard (Robert

Putnam’s Profile at Harvard University).

Robert Putnam has made the observation that America’s stock of social capital has

been on the decline for the last half century (Putnam, 666). Putnam describes social

capital as “features of social life – networks [and] norms – that enable participants to act

more effectively to pursue shared objectives” (664-5). Putnam feels as though today’s

society has become deficient of social capital. In contending that social capital is

declining, he cites the dip in membership records among national organizations,

individual’s use of personal time, and lack of attendance for rallies and speeches

(Putnam, 666). Most notably, however, Putnam attributes much of the erosion in social
4

capital to “television, the electronic revolution, and other technological changes” (667).

Putnam’s main points in regards to technology and its corrosive effect on social capital is

that it displaces time that can be used doing other things, reduces trust, and weakens civic

engagement (678).

Putnam explains that while “most forms of social and media participation are

positively correlated,” people who watch TV are less likely to attend leisure activities

outside of the home (678). His argument here revolves around the fact that people have

less time in their day to go out of their homes and attend social gatherings and engage in

informal conversation (679). These are critical aspects of social capital that Putnam

believes have been dwindling in the past couple decades. Putnam further attributes the

reduction in trust in society to the advancement in technology. Putnam declares that

heavy users of television “are unusually skeptical about the benevolence of other people

– overestimating crime rates, for example” (679). Putnam believes that this newly formed

schema of human nature is extremely pessimistic (679). This pessimism therefore leads to

a diminishing level of social capital because of the resultant lack of trust. Finally, he

suggests that there is a correlation between newspaper readership and high social capital

as opposed to the low social capital associated with television watching (678). Putnam

has found that those who read the newspaper more than watching television are generally

in 76% more civic organizations (Putnam, 678). Putnam is trying to express that people

who do not engage in activities relating to technology possess far more social capital due

to their involvement in organizations. Ultimately, he argues that “each hour spent viewing

television is associated with less social trust and less group membership,” which clarify

how harmful technology can be to social capital (Putnam, 678).


5

Though television is specifically indicted by Putnam, the Internet can most

definitely be considered an element of technological change. However, the Internet,

rather than having a damaging effect on social capital, has worked to restore the social

capital that has been depleting in recent decades. The Internet contributes to an ongoing

relationship that is harbored between individuals and communities. It will be established

that while social capital may have been falling in recent decades, the Internet, and the

resources for the promotion of social capital inherent to it, is working to restore this lost

social capital. In order to give a more thorough understanding of the Internet, a brief

history is given here.

The History and Evolution of the Internet

The Internet also has a long and interesting history. The Internet originated in the

United States Department of Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA

was primarily developed to help computer researchers working in the Department of

Defense in the 1960’s, communicate with one another over great distances quickly and

efficiently (Abbate). Its original name was ARPANET (Abbate). The Internet, as the

public knows it today, really came into being in 1989. During the 1990’s, the growth of

the Internet was tremendous, and this explosive growth continues today in the 21st

century (Abbate). Although the Internet, in its infancy at least, was manufactured,

designed, and used primarily for military purposes, the unforeseen growth of the Internet

into the commercialization center and community setting that it is today was without any

precedent (Abbate). The Internet still has a lot of growing to do, but its role in today’s

society is immeasurable, providing an array of ways to both supplement and promote

social capital. As already noted, there are a number of ways to promote social capital, and
6

the Internet adds to and makes contributing to the restoration of social capital easier.

Saving Our Time and Keeping Us Connected

In the year 2000, The National Geographic Society published a survey that had

circulated in their magazine, The National Geographic (Wellman et.al, 441). It was in

search of what Americans were doing with the time they spent on the Internet. According

to the study, “The most common activity is social, exchanging e-mails at a mean rate of

270 days per year. Other social activities include engaging in chats, playing multi-user

games […] People also use the Internet for less social activities, such as web surfing;

looking for news, digital libraries, and magazines” (Wellman et al, 441). Clearly, there is

a lot to do on the Internet and only a limited amount of time to do all of these things. One

of the arguments used to refute the idea that the Internet increases social capital is that the

Internet competes for the other activities that can be done in a 24 hour period (Wellman et

al, 439).

Professor Barry Wellman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and

Chair-Emeritus of both the Community and Information Technologies section and the

Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association,

asserts that the data on this stolen time is negligible at best (Wellman et al, 439). The

Internet, rather, has been shown through statistical analysis to “supplement network

capital by extending existing levels of face-to-face and telephone contact,” which are the

most desirable forms of social interaction (Wellman et al, 450). Furthermore, the Internet

is a very efficient tool that leads to saved time that can be spent socializing with the

family, friends, or attending a meeting (Wellman et al, 450). Loss of time is not a valid

argument to make when criticizing the Internet, because the Internet makes up all of the
7

time one usually spends away from the Internet due to its great efficiency. People also

tend to do things online that they would typically do in a regular day offline. For

example, “people might read newspapers or search for information regardless of whether

they do this online or offline” (Wellman et al, 450). Therefore, people still engage in

regular activities whether they are on the Internet or not. If people continue to engage in

activities that they do otherwise, then the notion of the Internet wasting one’s time is

dismissed. A more pertinent question is the following: does the Internet improve one’s

abilities to maintain and connect with other people, and in particular, people with whom

these individuals may not ordinarily interact with?

A significant study was performed in 2001 in response to this question in Toronto

by Keith Hamptom, an Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication

at the University of Pennsylvania (Keith Hamptom). The community that Hamptom used

has become known as Netville in sociological fields (Warschauer, 318). This community

was being inundated with new residents entering from all over Canada and the United

States (Warschauer, 318). All of the residents were given the option of having broadband

Internet access. Only 60% of the participants in this “experiment” were given Internet

access at all initially (Warschauer, 318). The study made significant findings on how

people interact with those located far distances from themselves:

The study found that those with Internet access maintained and developed

more extensive social networks of contact and support both within

Netville and outside. Outside the community, the wired residents tended to

maintain or increase their contacts and support from people who lived less

than 50km away, between 50 and 500 km away, or more than 500 km
8

away; whereas the unwired residents faced decreased contact or support at

all three distances (presumably because they had just moved to a new

neighborhood and thus removed from old contacts, and were also busy

settling in to their new homes). (Warschauer, 318)

The evidence shows that the Internet helps and promotes contact with people who are in

close proximity, as well as those far away. The final sentence of this passage further

elaborates on the fact that people who use the Internet save themselves time, because

those who were not using the Internet were too “busy” with other things regarding their

move.

This evidence solidifies the notion that the Internet helps communication through

usage of the Internet, but what about other forms of communication like the telephone or

the coveted face-to-face communication? One of the perks of being able to use the

Internet in this experiment was being included in an e-mail group know as Net-1

(Warschauer, 318). It has been shown that “because of communication on this list and the

social ties that arose from exchanges online and later offline, wired residents had

substantially more contact of every sort within the community than did non wired

residents” (Warschauer, 318). These exchanges took the form of being recognized by

name, the amount of people actually spoken to, the number of people called on the phone,

and the number of people visited at home. Furthermore, those residents who were wired

had a tremendous amount of contact with the participants of the experiment who weren’t

wired, due to the fact that “the wired residents took responsibility for sharing and passing

on information from the Net-1 list to their non-wired neighbors” (Warschauer, 318). This

is a positive indicator of social capital, because it depicts a society of people that work to
9

strengthen their community outside of the realm of the Internet. The Internet is evidenced

here to be a resource that communicates and connects, not only through the Internet itself,

but through opening doors to other methods of communication that are highly sought

after from a social capital perspective.

The Internet did not Invent Trust

Eric Uslaner, a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the

University of Maryland in College Park, asserts that trust is a significant component of

social capital in his paper, Social Capital and the Net (Uslaner, 62). Assuredly, trust is

definitely part of what comprises social capital, but the Internet does not necessarily

enhance or hinder trust, because it is merely the device used to connect individuals and

communities, as opposed to the individuals and communities themselves. In order to

understand trust a little better, a long term analysis of the state of trust in the United

States will be a sufficient place to start.

A disheartening trend has been occurring in the United States, “In 1960, 58% of

Americans believed ‘most people can be trusted’ […]” (Uslaner, 60). By the 1990’s,

barely more than 33% of Americans trusted one another (Uslaner, 60). Trust has been on

the decline even without the Internet, and this is recognized by Robert Putnam. His

original argument was that “watching a lot of television keeps Americans inside their

homes and away from the civic organizations and social connections that generate trust”

(Uslaner, 62). Putnam’s new culprit is the Internet because of the large leap it has made in

the world of technology.

However, it is important to notice that trust and the Internet are not completely

unrelated. Going online certainly does take a certain amount of trust, especially when
10

considering one’s privacy and when making purchases with a credit card. However, the

same is true about our everyday lives outside of the world of the Internet. People who are

trusting won’t lock their doors at night or purchase guns, because they feel safe in their

homes. Trust is a component of personality, and “neither the Internet nor television

remakes people’s personalities” (Uslaner, 63). Trust is something that is taught to

individuals by their parents and is influenced by their own particular upbringing. The fact

of the matter is that the Internet “is filled with pornography, but it didn’t invent it, and

nobody is forced to visit these sites. And, yes, there are plenty of opportunities on the

Web to give to charities, find volunteering opportunities, and join support groups”

(Uslaner, 64) The Internet prevails in its ability to bring “together people who already

have something in common – family ties, friendship, working in the same office, political

views, or needing the same kind of medical information or psychological support”

(Uslaner, 63). These factors are the core of what makes the Internet a huge champion of

social capital.

The Internet’s role assisting Community Organizations

A critical step in trying to increase social capital is getting people involved in

networks, communities, and organizations. These types of mediums exist due to either

personal interest or proximity to others. With statistical significance, studies have shown

that when there is an increase in Internet use, the “Internet […] increases organizational

involvement” (Wellman et al, 444). This particular study was measured in the frequency

of emails that were sent daily (Wellman et al, 444). In a comparison done between face-

to-face interactions, phone calls, letters written, and e-mails sent, the greatest factor in the

number of total communications an individual had with another was based on their rate of
11

sending e-mails (Wellman et al, 445). Another significant correlation between increased

participation in organizations due to the Internet was found, and it was an individual’s

level of education. This is a somewhat disconcerting correlation due to the fact that it

implies that only an educated few are receiving the full benefits of the Internet. Yet, there

is a lot of good that comes from this association as well. More education will ultimately

allow the individual to encounter more issues that need resolving. If the Internet improves

social capital, and it has shown thus far that it does, these educated individuals will be

more civically engaged as a result of their Internet use. While this may not be the most

ideal situation initially, this scenario at least gives the opportunity for more civic issues

on a local, national, and international level to be tackled. The social capital of the

educated will be used to further the uneducated. There are many illustrations of this.

Organizations that use technology, specifically the Internet, help communities through

varying projects.

A project run in India by an NGO called Prayas attempted to help children who

have been abandoned and left on the street. In the past this group had implemented

“housing programs, health clinics, [and] counseling services” (Warschauer, 320). Prayas

intended to use the Internet to train the children vocationally, “rather than merely placing

computers in the slum” (Warschauer, 320). By giving the children the ability to use the

Internet, they helped these once abandoned children try to help themselves. The Internet

helps promote social capital for both parties involved in this example. The Internet is the

resource that Prayas used to educate the Indian children, and the Internet was used by the

children to educate themselves. Prayas was able to set up a far better computer training

program that was organized and had specific purpose (Warschauer, 321). Eventually, the
12

education that is attained from the Internet will be used by those learning, and they can

now contribute and spread social capital of their own.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also organizations that learn how to

use the Internet to their advantage in order to provide the best available resources to those

in need. A group called the Community Digital Initiative, which is based out of Riverside,

California, helps low-income Latinos in the area by providing them with a center that

offers “violence-prevention groups, a dispute-mediation group, a volunteer center, court-

referral programs, housing programs, transportation-access programs, crisis-intervention

programs, community health projects, and legal-aid organizations” (Warschauer, 320).

With such a wide array of programs offered it would be quite easy for this center to lose

track of everything and fall apart. However, the Internet has made it easier than ever to

organize and function effectively. “Managers, administrators, and members of these

groups participate in workshops to learn how to use computers and the Internet to

function more effectively (Warschauer, 320). They learn anything from how to set up a

mailing list to keeping track of organizational finances. The Internet allows for this

massive collaboration to occur. The Community Digital Initiative’s efforts are also

multiplied due to the significant amount of connectedness they are able to achieve with

these groups who come to the community center through usage of the Internet. Clearly

the power of the Internet’s ability to increase social capital is visible here. The Internet is

able to take a plethora of organizations and bring them together under one roof, where

they can be used more effectively and efficiently.

A final example of how organizations use the Internet to foster social capital can

be seen in the Bresee Foundation, which carries out community events in Central Los
13

Angeles (Warschauer, 321). This particular part of the city is infested with crime,

“homicide, gang-related shootings, auto-theft, domestic violence, and drugs”

(Warschauer, 321). It is also home to the Rampart police scandal, in which Los Angeles

Police apparently planted evidence and faked altercations to send people to prison

unlawfully (Warschauer, 321). Evidently, the community is in dire need of help and some

social capital. The Bresee Foundation has a number of resources for its community, and

one of its more recent additions was a computer center called Cyberhood (Warschauer,

321). The Bresee Foundation believes that in order to build their community back up,

they must foster their leaders from within. The way this foundation achieves this goal is

through employing a number of the individuals who come into their Cyberhood center;

“some 25% of the employees at Bresee are formerly clients of the center” (Warschauer,

321). In Cyberhood, teenagers employed from within the community who show natural

ability with the Internet and computers in general are hired to help others in the

community. Cyberhood and the Bresee Foundation are cornerstones of how the Internet

can be used to bolster social capital. The Internet encourages personal insight, and within

this organization that insight is encouraged and shared with others. This is but one of the

many examples of the Internet working alongside the community trying to help those less

fortunate help themselves. The Internet provides its users with the tools to teach

themselves and others. All of these examples of the Internet improving social capital

work on improving the individual. The Internet, however, also further allows individuals

to contribute to their own community, maximizing social capital. There are other areas in

which the Internet advances the well being of social capital, and that is through the

medium of political involvement.


14

Political Participation

At first the Internet painted a dismal picture of political involvement. In 1998, a

so-called nationally representative sample was used to study the effects of the Internet

and voter participation (Tolbert, 177). The study showed that with the “exception of

giving campaign donations, the political behavior of those with access to the Internet and

online political information did not differ from those who did not use the Internet […]

” (Tolbert, 177). Unfortunately, this evidence came from a single midterm election, and

since 1998, there has been far more data suggesting that the Internet has improved

citizens’ political participation, which is a component of civic engagement that enhances

social capital. The most critical thing when it comes to political participation is

essentially getting constituents out to vote. Bringing citizens out to vote is considered one

of the most significant rights given to all Americans (Feigenbaum, 2006). A study that

supports the Internet’s ability to increase participation was published in the 1999 DDB

Life Style Study, which found that the Internet’s ability to exchange information had a

positive correlation to “civic engagement, and contentment” (Tolbert, 177). To further

illustrate the Internet’s ability to bring political information to the masses, consider the

statistics that were gathered by the American National Election Studies (NES) from 1996

to 2000. A study administered by the NES planned to detail whether or not people had

Internet access, and whether or not they had used the Internet to obtain any sort of

political information after the election had taken place (Tolbert, 178). In 1996, 27% of

respondents had Internet access, but only 7% of them used this to obtain political

information (Tolbert, 178). However, consider the great expanse the Internet took in just

four years. In 2000, 63% of respondents had Internet access, and 29% of them used it to
15

obtain political information (Tolbert, 178). This is a critical statistic for three reasons.

First, the amount of people who were involving themselves with the political process

through acquiring information grew dramatically. Second, there was a far better ratio of

people using the Internet to partake in politics than in 1996. Third, the Internet was

clearly spreading. People were becoming more aware of political events, because the

Internet allowed them to obtain the information they needed quickly and easily. Political

involvement is one of the chief methods to become civically engaged. With civic

engagement comes an undeniable rise in social capital. The Internet clearly demonstrates

here how it educates more people about political issues, and therefore promotes an

engaged citizenry.

Not only do citizens who use the Internet educate themselves further about

politics, but “individuals who use the Internet for political news are more likely to

participate in politics” (Tolbert, 182). In this particular instance, the word “political

participation” was defined as “the respondent [voting], talk to others about candidates or

parties, display buttons or signs, work for a party or candidate, attend rallies, […] and

give money to interest groups” (Tolbert, 182). This is an impressive list of actions that

contribute to social capital, which rose dramatically in 1998 and 2000 as a result of

Internet use. Furthermore, there seems to be a sort of reciprocal role that the Internet

plays with the individual as far as political participation goes. As it has been noted

already, use of the Internet for political purposes promotes political participation offline.

Similarly, “the more people engage in political activities offline, the more they engage in

political discussions online” (Wellman et al, 447). Clearly, the Internet provides a wealth

of information to the individual, and perhaps further mobilizes that individual to


16

participate in elections. The Internet promotes and expands an individual’s ability to

contribute within the political spectrum. Aside from obtaining information via web

surfing, people acquire information regarding politics via “e-mail and chat-rooms”

(Tolbert, 177).

Online Communities and Their Applications in the Real World

While e-mail and chat-rooms continues to be excellent ways to communicate, the

Internet has done its fair share of evolving and now the world known as the

“blogosphere” dominates the way people can interact and share news with one another. A

“blog” is the condensed form of the word “web-log,” which started out technically as an

online journal of sorts. Since then it has grown into huge conglomerates such as

blogger.com, which has millions upon millions of blogs that are updated 24 hours a day,

seven days a week, and that discuss every topic imaginable. From aardvarks to zygotes,

bloggers write about it all. Upon searching the word “politics” on the blogger.com

homepage, a massive 2,750,640 blogs are found, and this number is continually growing

(Blogger.com, 2006). Blogs have had incredible impact on social capital based on their

ability to reach people quickly and efficiently. Perhaps one of the most significant events

played by blogs in politics occurred when bloggers united to decry the words of Trent

Lott at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party (The Nation, 2002). Strom Thurmond is

somewhat controversial due to the stance he took on segregation. Lott’s comments that

day were out of line to say the least: “I want to say this about my state. When Strom

Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the

country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these

years either” (The Nation, 2002). Ultimately, this ended in absolute catastrophe for Lott.
17

He ended up resigning as the Senate Republican leader shortly after these comments

surfaced. However, what made this story stand above the rest was the fact that it was due

to the bloggers that it actually got noticed. Trent Lott’s words went practically unnoticed

by C-Span, a large media corporation that actually aired Thurmond’s birthday as it was

happening. Moreover, these comments by Lott were completely dismissed by major

publications like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times as anything serious.

How then is it possible that a story that bypassed the major media in the United States

ended up causing a senate majority leader to resign from his post? The answer lies within

the power of the Internet and of blogs specifically.

Many individuals were in utter disbelief about the comments that Lott said and

decided to write about their feelings on various blogs such as Instapundit and John

Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (Blogs Make the Headlines, 2002). Instantly, bloggers

from around the country united together to write about their disapproval of Lott. Keep in

mind that Trent Lott had made a fair share of racist and pro-confederate remarks in the

past. In 1978, he led a campaign to reinstate the citizenship of Jefferson Davis (The

Nation, 2002). In 1980, Lott uttered an eerily similar quote to the one he said in 2002

when he said, “You know, if we had elected that man [Strom Thurmond] 30 years ago, we

wouldn't be in the mess we are today” (The Nation, 2002). The difference this time

around was that citizens could easily communicate through blogging with one another.

The story spread wildly around the Internet and around the country. Bloggers caused a

technological uproar, and this time the media did react to Lott’s statements. Talk about a

quick turnaround. Lott made his comments on December 5th, 2002 and resigned on

December 20th, 2002. In this case, the Internet allowed bloggers to organize quickly,
18

communicate their similar sentiments, and get real action taken. Moreover, once the

Internet began to flex its might and raise its voice, the large print media had to respond to

the upheaval it was causing all over the net. This example is a testament to the social

capital that can be gained from the usage of the Internet. People banded together in this

situation through an online community that opposed what Lott had to say and made a real

difference through their blogging contributions. However, the sense of community on the

Internet is often criticized:

If high use of the Internet supplements face-to-face and telephone contact

and if it affords greater involvement in organizations and politics, then

both these phenomena should foster more community commitment. Yet

this is not the case. There is no association between Internet use, social

contact, organizational and political involvement, and feelings of

community (or alienation) in everyday life. (Wellman et al, 448).

The quotation makes a lot of very empowering statements about the Internet. It advocates

that the Internet contributes to both social contact and involvement in given organizations

which are clear indications of social capital. However, it is unfortunate that the quote

doesn’t realize how strong one’s commitment to their online community can be. The

Internet is a new arena in which communities need to be assessed in a new way. Just

because the community does not resemble one that American’s and the world have been

likened to for the past half century does not mean that there is any less commitment to an

individual’s online community. The Internet harbors new types of communities that are

different, but still just as potent.

The basis for online communities can be found at the Uniform Resource Locator
19

(URL) of Facebook.com. Facebook’s “about” section provides the following description

of their service, “Facebook is a social utility that helps people better understand the world

around them. Facebook develops technologies that facilitate the spread of information

through social networks allowing people to share information online the same way they

do in the real world” (Facebook.com). Facebook outlines three primary goals in this

section. They advocate that it is a social community. Further, Facebook understands that

it is constantly evolving with new technology that it develops, and finally that it strives to

meet a level of interaction comparable to that of a real world setting. This is most

definitely a tough list of assertions to be made by an online community. Let’s see how

they stand up.

Facebook provides their users with the ability to put up a picture of themselves,

write a small profile of some interests, send messages to other users, join groups, write on

another member’s “wall”, and poke other users. These features are simple, but they work

successfully. Initially, there were only 650 people from Harvard University who were

using this network, now the site has grown to more than 12 million users (Hundreds

Register for New Facebook Website, 2004). If anything else, the sheer size of this

community creates a commitment to it. Walking around any college campus USA, one

will hear students talk about Facebook, and if someone happens to not be on Facebook,

they pretty much don’t exist. Facebook allows a young, tech-savvy demographic of adults

to communicate with one another via this network. Keeping up to date with people all

over the country is easier than ever with Facebook’s News Feed.

The News Feed is a relatively new addition to the features found on Facebook. It

stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy due to the fact that it displayed all the
20

actions of the people you are connected to via “friendships.” Facebook understood that

there needed to be some sort of privacy that people were entitled to in this community, so

in order to see another’s profile one must become “friends” with them first. What

developed from this News Feed was perhaps one of the biggest protests that Generation-

Y has ever participated in. A Facebook group was opened up called, “Students against

Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook)” in which students were meant to

join in order to show their disapproval of the addition of the News Feed (Facebook.com).

If the users of Facebook and students on Facebook didn’t have any sense of community

commitment there would not have been nearly as much hullabaloo about this issue as

there ended up being. Close to 800,000 people joined the group, showing their

commitment to this online community. A story was published in the Washington Post that

brought the “protest” into plain view. This also demonstrates further how actions on the

Internet have a great deal of influence on the world outside of the Internet. Within days,

as a result of this petition being signed by a substantial amount of people, the owner of

Facebook.com, Mark Zuckerberg, developed privacy settings for users as a compromise

and expressed his own opinion of what had occurred:

This may sound silly, but I want to thank all of you who have written in

and created groups and protested. Even though I wish I hadn’t made so

many of you angry, I am glad we got to hear you. And I am also glad that

News Feed highlighted all these groups so people could find them and

share their opinions with each other as well. (Facebook.com)

Zuckerberg, along with the 12 million users who are on Facebook, view this online

website as a community of individuals that can come together, enjoy the features of the
21

site, and band together to fight against issues that involve them. A great way that

Facebook creates a sense of community is through its groups. Whether you join groups

such as “Oppose Divestment from Israel, Support Peaceful Investment in the Region,”

which are very politically charged, or more fun groups like the, “International Liger

Defense Fund,” Facebook allows the user to find like minded individuals who want to

educate one another on a given topic of interest (Facebook.com). This sort of inviting

community breeds commitment. The Facebook community allows individuals to connect

and work with one another and find those out there with similar passions. When people

are able to connect with one another, find an issue they are collectively passionate about,

and then act on that issue, that is community; that is how social capital is built.

The Internet Serving the Needs of Humans

It has been a central ingredient to this paper to express that the Internet is the

“glue that holds communities and other social networks together” through means of

promoting and furthering social capital (Preece, 37). It is important to recognize its role

as glue. The Internet cannot function without people adding to it, however, it is highly

effective as a device to create order and streamline efforts. In the immediate aftermath of

the September 11th terrorist attacks, a sense of community was established quickly.

People banded together and helped each other grieve over the tremendous tragedy that

just occurred. While some reached for a telephone to call loved ones or watched TV to

see the horrible images, close to 30 million Americans sought out the Internet, either

through email, instant messaging, or blogging, to support and exchange information

through online communities (Preece, 37). People came together from far distances,

disparities in age, and a variety of cultures to form a community of concerned citizens,


22

“[debating] about why these events occurred, what response was appropriate, and what

should be done to avert future atrocities” (Preece, 37). Even though Internet users’ only

connection was through technology, there was still a distinct empathy and reflection that

occurred communally. The bond formed with others to mourn about the events of that

day, although quickly formed, were meaningful nevertheless. Technology acted to serve

human needs on this day, and when human needs are met by the Internet, social capital is

byproduct. Human’s needs on this particular day were well met by the Internet. However,

there exist some central questions that still need to be evaluated in order to understand

how the Internet can better serve the needs of humans. One thing to consider would be:

how can the Internet support and encourage an increase in social capital on a local,

national, and international level (Preece, 38)? Furthermore, how can we apply the

Internet in such a way that no matter how much money one has, what education one

received, what race, class, or gender one associates him or herself with, everyone can

participate in the usage of the Internet (Preece, 38)?

One of the most critical steps that need to be taken in the very near future is

making all parts of a computer and the Internet cheap and affordable. There have been

major strides with this in the last couple decades as the price of computers has dropped

dramatically (Davis, 853). However, there is still a lot more work to be done in this

regard. Some of the cheapest computers sell for $155 today, but this is still a large sum of

money to people with low incomes (Discount PC, 2006). If computers become widely

available to all people then they can use their Internet access to further their own and

their community’s social capital. Internet access still has room for growth and

improvement too. The newer phenomenon of wireless Internet and cable modems is
23

helping people more readily attain information and make connections through the

Internet, but there are limits to even this. In the future, having to “hook-up” to use the

Internet needs to become obsolete. America and countries around the world need to put

significant effort into making their own countries wireless. When this occurs, the Internet

can be attainable from any point anywhere in a given country. This will make it far easier

to tap into the resources of the Internet and interact with people. These are barriers

directly related to attaining access to the Internet, but there are ways to improve upon the

experience of surfing the Internet as well.

The Internet is an environment in which rapid exchange of ideas is possible

(Preece, 38). For instance, when a person goes online they can write an email, send an

instant message, blog, or enter a chat room. When a person is offline, they can use a

telephone to communicate, see someone in person, or use newer technologies like video-

conferencing. In order to gain the fullest benefits of the Internet, it would be wise to

integrate the uses of the Internet into our offline communicative activities. Facebook, for

example, has actually done a fantastic job with offline communications as it has settings

that the user can select that will send updates to a mobile phone. Essentially, this makes

all connections that people want to make with one another instantaneous. Connections are

therefore made very efficiently, and people can respond to needs that arise quickly.

Although it has been evidenced that the Internet neither increases nor decreases

trust in the individual, a potential increase in trust will directly increase, restore, and help

social capital, because this “lead[s] participants to expect positive future interactions”

(Preece, 38). People ought to enjoy their Internet experience, so there is certainly no

drawback to improving trust. One way that trust can be dealt with through the Internet is
24

providing users with the ability to “identify who is present and examine their past

behavior” (Preece, 38). Through a concept known as “social translucence,” participants

with the Internet will better be able to judge the environments in to which they enter

(Preece, 38). Again, Facebook has ingeniously tapped into this resource with their News

Feed. This type of thinking needs to proliferate throughout the Internet. As trust is

improved, it will help individuals associate with and form meaningful connections with

other people.

Finally, the Internet needs to be created in the eye of the user. It must appeal to

those who use it, and it shouldn’t be left up to large corporations and media giants to

decide what content is noteworthy. In the past, people would go to CNN.com or

AOL.com to read their daily news. However, there is a new trend of attaining information

through the web in which users determine the relevance of a given article. Various

websites like digg.com and del.icio.us constitutes a new wave in Internet-user relations.

These websites allow the user to rank items that are meaningful to them. Giving user’s

control of their own Internet experience will further allow them to explore the issues that

are meaningful to them.

The world is making more use of the Internet today than ever, which then is a

hopeful sign for the restoration of social capital (Tolbert, 178). Social capital is a very

desirable thing for any community to possess, because it brings the community together

to work towards common goals and issues. A world in which there was a severe lack of

social capital, and even perhaps no social capital would be absolutely devastating. With a

lack of social capital, Joel Sobel, a professor in the Department of Economics at the

University of California, San Diego, asserts that people are destined to “belong to fewer
25

clubs and participate in those we do belong to at lower rates” (140). This means that

society may become complacent with the many ills that are currently inflicting the world.

People will be less willing to actively change their environment. Furthermore, without a

good basis of social capital, voting and exercising one’s suffrage is no longer appreciated

as much (Sobel, 140).

Voting tendencies have a great deal of correlation to an individual’s commitment

to their community. When people don’t vote it indicates an apathetic approach to

decisions and policies that may be made about their community. If people don’t vote,

they are expressing their indifference. An indifferent society is not going to be able to

tackle issues and solve them collectively. The cure to this decay in social capital lies in

the power of the Internet. It is unmatched in its abilities to connect people across large

distances, age barriers, and cultural differences. The Internet has the ability to harness the

interests of its users and localize and connect them very quickly and efficiently. The

Internet is an educating tool that provides people with the outlets to get involved. Social

capital may have been on the decline, but the Internet is the means to its restoration.

Works Cited

Barry Wellman’s Vita. 29 Oct. 2006. NETLAB at the University of Toronto. 11 Dec. 2006

<http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/vita/index.html>.

Blogger. 2006. Google. 5 Dec. 2006 <http://www.blogger.com/>.

Blogs Make the Headlines. 23 Dec. 2002. Wired News. 5 Dec. 2006
26

<http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,56978,00.html>.

Davis, Ruth M. “Computers and Electronics for Individual Services.” Science 215.4534

(1982): 852-855.

Discount PC. 12 Dec. 2006. Discount PC International. 12 Dec. 2006

<http://www.discountpc.net/>.

Facebook. 5 Dec. 2006. Mark Zuckerberg Productions. 5 Dec. 2006

<http://www.facebook.com>.

Feigenbaum, Paul. Personal Interview. 6 Sept. 2006.

Guest, Avery M. “Review of Changing Face of the Suburbs.” By Guest. Social Forces

55.3 (1977): 825-826.

Hundreds Register for New Facebook Website. 9 Feb. 2004. The Harvard Crimson. 5

Dec. 2006 <http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=357292>.

Inventing the Internet (review) – Technology and Culture 41:4. 2000. The Society for the

History of Technology. 5 Dec. 2006

<http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/technology_and_culture/v041/41.4roland.ht

ml>.

Keith Hampton at the Annenberg School for Communication. 26 Sep. 2006. University of

Pennsylvania. 5 Dec. 2006 <http://mysocialnetwork.net/>.

Preece, Jenny. “Supporting Community and Building Social Capital.” Communications

of the ACM 45.4 (2002): 37-39.

Putnam, Robert D. “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital

In America.” PS: Political Science and Politics 28.4 (1995): 664-683.

Robert Putnam’s Profile at Harvard University. 2004. John F. Kennedy School of


27

Government. 5 Dec. 2006

<http://ksgfaculty.harvard.edu/Robert_Putnam>.

Sobel, Joel. “Can We Trust Social Capital?” Journal of Economic Literature 40.1 (2002):

139-154.

Taube, Volker G. “Connected and Disconnected? On the Impact of Internet Use on Social

Connectedness.” Computational & Mathematical Organization Theory 10

(2004): 227-241.

Tolbert, Caroline J.; McNeal, Ramona S. “Unraveling the Effects of the Internet on

Political Participation?” Political Research Quarterly 56.2 (2003): 175-

185.

Trent Lott’s “Uptown Klan.” 11 Dec. 2002. The Nation. 5 Dec. 2006

<http://www.thenation.com/blogs/thebeat?pid=208>.

Uslaner, Eric M. “Social Capital and The Net.” Association for Computing Machinery.

Communications of the ACM 43.12 (2000): 60-64.

Warschauer, Mark. “Social capital and access.” Department of Education and

Department of Information & Computer Science, University of California

2 (2003): 315-330.

Wellman, Barry; Haase, Anabel Quan; Witte, James; Hamptom, Keith. “Does the Internet

Increase, Decrease, or Supplement Social Capital? Social Networks,

Participation, and Community Commitment.” The American Behavioral

Scientist 45.3 (2001): 436-455.