Social networks and social capital

One of the Tuttlers this morning has triggered my old debate over value and utility (which reminds me…. I was writing a book in this area before I got distracted by running a small business).  Tony Hall posted links to the Wikipedia entry on social capital and questioned the line in the entry that social networks implicitly generate value.  He questioned what was meant by ‘value’ in terms of value theory.  I would argue that the entry is probably talking about value networks (which has its own implied definition of value), and the act of linking to the entry on value theory is probably redundant.  But as I’ve said many times in the past, it is more useful to distinguish between value and utility, and then define who are the beneficiaries of any implicit value, before being too cavalier about social capital as a ‘pure profit’ outcome.

The question is timely however, as I’m counting down to my session at Amplified08 where I’ll be exploring the the role of social networks in generating positive change for public interest intitiatives. In that session there will be an assumption that social networks can be mobilised for social good.  But it is not the act of bringing people together over a public interest initiative that generates the social capital.  It is the total cumulative improvements to the initiative, generated by improved communications within a network, which is more clearly social capital.  As Howard Rhenigold has noted, mobs are not necessarily value-positive unless they are smart mobs.

This isn’t new territory.  People have been doing research on COSIs (Collective Open Source Innovation) and public interest social media for some time.  But what we need to consider is how best to mobilise positive action.  It isn’t a matter of ‘build it and they will come’.  They might.  But that’s really beside the point. It’s more a matter of providing the context and opportunity for positive and productive participation – a very different proposition.

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