facebook doesn’t ruin everything (as of 2007, anyway)

Valenzuela, Sebastian, Namsu Park, and Kerk F. Kee. “Is There Social Capital in a Social Network Site?: Facebook Use and College Students’ Life Satisfaction, Trust, and Participation.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14.4 (2009): 879–901. Print.

This is a fairly straightforward quantitative study, so this should be a pretty brief post.

The purpose of this study, as the authors admit, is basically to provide quantitative proof that Facebook use is not going to create a generation of isolated, uninvolved slugs hidden away in basements all over America. Spoiler alert: they provide it, although they do seem a little disappointed that that the positive correlation between SNS use and political and civic participation is not as strongly positive as they had hoped.

The article usefully provides a overview of scholarly definitions of social capital, settling on “the resources available to people through their social interactions” (877). Once again, Mr. Bowling Alone Robert Putnam receives a citation as the curmudgeon responsible for the idea that all screen time is equated equal. Basically, Valuenzuela, Park, & Kee argue that Putnam’s “time displacement hypothesis” (time spent staring at the television screen depletes the amount of social capital available) has been wrongfully extrapolated to include the computer screen as well, despite the fact that many uses of the computer do in fact involve active interaction with others. Although some uses of both the internet in general and SNSs in particular can in fact have a negative effect on social capital, the authors argue that this has no bearing whatsoever on whether they actually do.

To both define the parameters of their discussion and to accommodate the multidimensionality of social capital, the authors draw on Scheufele and Shah’s subdivision of social capital into three domains: the intrapersonal (life satisfaction), the interpersonal (trust between people), and the behavioral (“active participation in civic and political activities”).

Perhaps my brain is tired, but I find their discussion of the effect of social network sites on trust to be kind of amusing: SNSs provide information about people. Information about people can either promote trust or distrust. People probably aren’t friends with people they actively distrust. Therefore, Facebook promotes trust. Or, as they put it, social trust and Facebook may have a reciprocal relationship.

While, yes, this made me giggle in the library, I do think it’s worth asking to what degree this correlation between information and trust (the authors name-check music tastes, interests, and whereabouts, among other apparently vital facts) exists on sites of pseudonymous or anonymous community. What does trust even mean in, say, the comment section of a fashion blog?

Similarly, the study found a positive correlation between use of Facebook and civic participation, here defined as “individual or collective behavior aimed at resolving problems of the community,” but presumably what these parameters actually look like can change significantly depending on whether that community is located offline (as connected to the offline identities of Facebook) or on-.

In short, this article does two things. First, it provides a study to cite when I want to prove that Facebook isn’t having a deleterious effect on social engagement. Second, and more importantly, it tacitly poses a question that will be taken up in a number of my other readings: what does social capital look like in entirely online communities?

Oh, three things: it also highlights how quickly, quickly, quickly things change when you study the internet. This was published in 2009 but conducted in 2007, and many of the features of Facebook that the authors described–that they based their arguments on–are now obsolete or so changed as to be unrecognizable. I was a late adopter of Facebook, but I have still been on there for four years. And the “Fun Wall”? I have no idea what that is. 

The biggest takeaway of all, though, is this: I am completely incapable of ever being “brief.”

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