Social capital is an abstract measure that wraps up how many people you know, the information flow in your network, how many people owe you favours, that kind of thing.
High social capital goes hand in hand with being in groups, and with knowing your neighbours. People with high social capital have better jobs, live longer, and are healthier and happier. In areas with high social capital, there’s less litter, and car drivers behave better at road junctions. It’s big things and little things.
It’s a big deal. If you aren’t in any groups, and you joinjust one, your odds of dying next year are cut in half. If you’re a smoker and aren’t in any groups, statistically it’s about the same whether you should join a group or quit smoking. (Source.)
Many aspects of living are correlated with low social capital but a couple stand out. What damages social capital, at least that we know of, at least in the US, is two things: commuting, and watching television. Both stop you spending time with your friends and neighbours.
So as increased commuting times and TV dinners spread across the USA, social capital dropped drastically between 1975 and the end of the century. In that time, the average number of times Americans had friends over for dinner in a year dropped from 15 to half that.
I suspect, if we had ways to see it, we’d realise we just passed through a Great Depression of the social world.
Social software and Web 2.0
Social software was a buzz word a few years ago. It came from a realisation that websites, being online, could include people and groups of people in a way desktop applications couldn’t. Social software meant new design considerations and a renewed acknowledgement that different people use computers differently. Showing off, sharing, politeness and play would have to take their place next to usability.
I wrote a short summary of social software ideas back in 2004.
Web 2.0 is now another hackneyed buzzword, and it’s hard to remember what a shift it was when the modern Web started emerging. To me, Web 2.0 is social software releasing what it could be when social is baked in from the foundations, instead of being added as an extra to an old-school news site or online shopping catalogue.
Why social matters
It now feels natural to incorporate our friends into photo management, encyclopaedias and tracking our finances. I love that Web 2.0 has been so successful it barely needs to be pointed out and the ideas from social software are part of everyday Web design discourse.
But it’s important to remember that for ten years – a decade – the Web was not a naturally social space, where conversations and creativity could flourish side-by-side and hand-in-hand – and for many, now, it’s still not. That we’re prepared to give away our rights and privacy in exchange for leaving comments or joining a chat system in a game tells me that we’re still starved for social connection online.
The fact that our hobbies are social again is great. Flickr builds social capital, Twitter builds social capital. The fact that are hobbies are social again is important.
Social means showing off and sharing, and politeness and play, yes. But social also means healthier, wealthier and happier, and that’s a big, big deal. I believe that’s why social matters.
The bit of social I particularly care about is small groups, and my close friends and family, and I believe we’re still not designing well there. But that’s a story for another day.