In the fifth part of the Trust in Me series, Ellie Thompson examines critical debate surrounding the internet and its social networks, and how social capital in online communities can be of benefit to charities and the Third Sector.

The societal impact of the Internet is the subject of increasing critical debate. This focuses primarily around the tensions relating to the Internet as an impossible location for the creation of meaningful relationships and communities. Critics such as Sherry Turkle, Jean and Baudrillard argue that the Internet undermines and detracts from real-world social engagement and the creation of self-identity. As such, it has been asserted by Putnam in Bowling Along: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) that in the context of online communities and networks the Internet is a reductive force in social capital creation.

Challenging these dystopian views, other scholars suggest relationships online are more agile, comprised of both weak and strong bonds. These bonds form a ‘network society’ that is dynamic, open and instrumental. In The Network Society (1991) Van Dijk claims that the Internet has become a locus for the assimilation of interpersonal, organisational and mass communications via the abundance of social connections that exist between actors. Therefore, vast reaching behavioural influence can be seen in the network society that helps shape decision making and encourage group participation. The online connections and bonds have been observed by contemporary scholars to be suggestive of what Putnam terms “bridging” and “bonding” social capital. The former is located in tentative and weak connections between actors who can contribute new perspectives to exchanges, but not emotional support. The latter is located within emotionally close relationships such as family and close friends, according to John Bargh and Katelyn McKenna.

Bonds in peer-to-peer social networks are increasingly being seen as imperative in value creation, with “personal relationships…becoming more important in the economic field…as a highly valuable business resource” in Towards a Network Sociality (2001). As a result, private brands are infiltrating and capitalising online social arenas to increase brand value. This can be seen in forms of exploitative co-creation; a “post-Fordist production process [that] directly exploits the communitarian dimension of social life” forcing it to be shaped and narrowed by commercially driven interests, according to Adam Arvidsson.

While the exploitative nature of the appropriation of social life by private brands is heavily debated, for the non-profit sector the abundance of social capital in online communities can be of huge benefit. Actors have the leverage to incite peers to undertake certain behaviour. This can be used to spread a charity’s message, raise brand profile and increase donations; essentially undertaking work that paid employees would have to do. This then allows valuable financial and human resourcing to be used elsewhere.






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