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Social Media in Government Reading Discussion: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone

The Web Manager University launched a pilot 12-week class this week that explores in-depth, the issues pertaining to social media in government. In each class meeting, we read excerpts from one book, listen to (and ask questions of) one expert in a field related the reading and the topic of the day, and then moves to a hands-on lab: using social media tools to put into practice, or see in motion, the theories we have just discussed.

Every week in this space, I hope to do three things: first, explain why I assigned the week’s text. Second, draw out what I think are the main points that apply to social media in government. Finally (and perhaps most importantly) present the “So what?” which is how the reading will help government social media practitioners do their jobs better. this week, the class read chapters one and 22 of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

Why I assigned this text

There are four topics that I want to cover in the class, each of first three building and merging to enable us to talk about the fourth: community in America; the nature, utility, and perils of information; moving from virtual interaction to real-world action; and finally the capacities and limitations of social media in government.

Every reading in the first three topics should do double duty. Each reading must stand on its own, introducing concepts that can be applied when we look at social media. But each reading must also contribute to our ability to act as social media practitioners in a government agency.

This reading answers perhaps the fundamental question that social media begs: what is it we’re doing in/through these media? What are we accomplishing? Reading Putnam, we can say: we are creating two kinds of social capital. And how does this apply to our work in social media? Because government workers, even moreso than their private-sector counterparts, must be sure to create both kinds of social capital, and must use all the social media at their disposal to do so. But they must also recognize that different kinds of social media create social capital very differently (think about the differences between email, social networks, microblogs, and photo-sharing sites, as example)

Two Kinds of Social Capital

Putnam reviews the history of the term “social capital,” which he dates to 1916. In that year, L. J. Hanifan, a state supervisor of public schools in West Virginia, wrote that “social capital” can be understood as:

those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit. . . . The individual is helpless socially, if let to himself. . . . If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. They community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.

Elsewhere in the first chapter, Putnam talks about how the increase in social capital within a society can lead to higher levels of trust and reciprocity among all its members. Higher levels of trust and reciprocity, in turn, yield dividends for everyone in the community. (More on social capital.)

The two kinds of social capital that we discussed are bonding capital and bridging capital.

  • Bonding: this is the social capital that is created when we engage in activities that bring us closer to groups we identify with. Activities that might increase bonding would be, for example, attending a family reunion, participating in a retreat with our religious community, competing in an intensive niche gaming tournament. These are all activities that would bring us closer to people who belonged the same “tribe” as we do.
  • Bridging: this is the social capital that is created when we engage in activities that bring us closer to groups we do not identify with. Examples of this may including attending an interfaith service; volunteering for a civic organization that we don’t already belong to; or perhaps even eating lunch in a different part of a cafeteria and striking up conversation with a group or people we don’t know.

Here is Putnam differentiating the two with a somewhat shopworn (ha ha) metaphor:

Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40.

For a private-sector marketing professional, bonding may be all they need to accomplish. For certain non-profits, bridging may be the name of their game. But for government, social media is most effective when it does both: creating a strong sense of belonging–because it’s everyone’s government–and acting as a platform for bridging–because many people feel left out of the system, and they deserve to be enfranchised.

The Dark Side of Social Capital

The title of Chapter 22 reminds us that social capital, like every other type of capital, can be used for good or ill. A group with a strong sense of identity and a high level of cohesion (made possible, perhaps by social media?) can thwart the will and act to the detriment of the larger society of which they are a part. Bonding taken to extreme.

Bridging, meanwhile, can spread misinformation, mistrust, or misbehavior as easily as it can engender any of its positive attributes.

This dark side of social capital is important to acknowledge, so we can guard against it and, when we see its effects, move to counter them immediately.

So what?

This is the question that moves the class from an intellectual exercise into a pragmatic, hands-on activity. The So what? to the question of social capital goes back to the reason I assigned this text: now that we understand what it is we’re dong in social media (creating social capital), let’s identify the mechanisms by which we do it–by doing it!

I asked the class to identify three groups that they belong to: civic organizations, fan clubs, religious communities, professional communities, neighborhoods, affinity or interest groups: anything. Then look at how those communities organized themselves online. Did they have a facebook page? a stand-alone blog? A listserv? A moderated bulletin board? Find out what they had and join the group. See how they interacted. Take a look at how bonding or bridging was occurring (or not occurring).

I’d like to ask readers the same question I’ll ask the class next time we meet: What groups do you belong to online? How does bonding or bridging take place? Do you perceive any of the negatives of social capital in your digital social media activities? Please comment!

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Pat Fiorenza

This was a really interesting post, sounds like a cool discussion…I’d love to learn more about Putnam’s ideas on social capital. I remember one of my college Professors urging us to read Bowling Alone, I’ve added it to my reading list now. The course was on Russian Politics, but the professor would go on these incredible rants and just start throwing out names of books and resources. I tried to pick up most, but Bowling Alone fell through the cracks.

For me, I’ll have to explore a little more to really figure out where I am. The challenge is I am part of so many different communities online, and each operates a little differently. It’s interesting to think about how the “bonding” and “bridging” works here at GovLoop. I’ll have to read more in Putnam to flesh out my thoughts, but my initial reaction is similar to what you mentioned for government:

“But for government, social media is most effective when it does both: creating a strong sense of belonging–because it’s everyone’s government–and acting as a platform for bridging–because many people feel left out of the system, and they deserve to be enfranchised.”

I think that is the hope of online communities – like minded people join to collaborate and connect (bond) and then are part of a community which expands knowledge and pulls us closer to communities/ideas we typically would not have access to (bridging). I think an interesting discussion point is not only if you are part of bonding or bridging, but how they interact and impact the user experience online.

Another point I’d like to explore is if you can actually just be bonding or bridging online – I lean towards that regardless of sector you should be in both, and are doing both. You might have a specific strategy that calls for just bonding (increasing customer loyalty). You might use the “bonding” strategy to impact your “bridging.” So – let’s have our best customers to compete and crowdsource a video why they love our product, and disperse across our social networks – the video will likely hit new potential customers (bridging).

Anyways, thanks again for posting – set me up for an interesting read!