Tuesday, December 10, 2013

But it is about social capital

In my pursuit of giving you the most complete information about all of my preferred topics, I went back to see if there are other complementary studies to the FB loneliness studies I have been summarizing recently.  A really solid study from back in 2010 adds an important piece.  Loneliness is not all that we should be looking at.  This one did measure loneliness as a side variable, but also looked at perhaps the more important variables of building two kinds of social capital.

Bonding social capital is when you build stronger relationships with close friends.  This provides emotional support when you need it and perhaps a really big favor now and again. Asking your distant FB acquaintances for this is probably not going to be particularly helpful.  Kind of like the way you feel when your 90 year old great aunt Clara endorses you on Linked In for your financial engineering skills.  Gee, thanks aunt Clara.

Bridging social capital is how you get new and disparate information from a diverse set of acquaintances.  Asking your close friends for this kind of information is likely to give you what you already know.  This is comforting, and helps us when we just want assurance that we are already heading in the viable direction, but probably not the path to true enlightenment. 

So guess what?  Directed communication, which is posting, getting comments - essentially what we consider REAL communication, is associated with greater bonding social capital, not too much bridging social capital, and reduced loneliness.  And consumption, which is when you just sit back and read what your contacts are posting, is associated with less of both kinds of social capital and more loneliness.  The loneliness findings confirm my post from yesterday, so I will leave that aside for now and just focus on the social capital findings.

What I like about the author's style is that they acknowledge something that the other studies don't.  These studies rarely look at the direction of the effect.  Does more posting lead to more social capital, or do people with more social capital post more?  Do people with less social capital post less because they are already lonely? 

One of their speculations is that the effects of consumption (lurking) is due to the huge volume of "noise" on most of our feeds.  Perhaps this low quality crap that we spend half the day skimming through makes us feel less connected with the people we really care about. 

Another strength of this paper is that they also have design recommendations, although they are not very specific. For example, FB can tell who is just lurking by evaluating their interaction patterns.  This is analytics 101.  When they see someone like this, they could add something along the lines of a sponsored link but instead of recommending that they JetBlue, they could recommend sending a message to their close friend Sam.  Or they could send a message to Sam recommending that they reach out to his good friend who has just been lurking lately and might need a hug. 

Another intervention FB could add would be to identify people (and you know who you are) who spend half of their day posting, commenting, and chatting with anybody and everybody.  Maybe they could match up one of these weak tie bridges and connect them to a lurker, even if they are just a friend of a friend. 

Of course, all of these interventions are not revenue drivers, so FB may be more interested in new ideas for sponsored links.  But if it increases activity overall, these people would organically be more available to see ads. So it does work for them too.