Digital Interactions: Social Capital in Virtual Communities

The Internet is a large scale communications network that can transfer information from one computer to any computer around the world in a split second.  The Internet has evolved into a massive networks of inter-connected computers that has been build up as a public platform where anyone with an Internet connection can easily share knowledge, opinions and personal beliefs.  As the Internet expands into almost every Americans house, it is making significant impacts on how individuals communicate and interact in society.  From communicating to distant family through email, to sharing of photographs through social networks, the Internet is turning into the new form of communication of the 21st century.  With new tools being build on top of the Internet, is is becoming easier for people to share their lives, communicate with friends and collaborate in groups to accomplish great feats.  The disregard to geopgraphic boundaries enables people to connect with any around the world to share a common interest, form an economic relationship or start political movements.  The Internet has created a public platform for sharing information without censorship.  As communication shift from personal conversations to digital transferring of messages, the interaction of groups and individuals change and help create a more efficient sociological community by connecting individuals who have common interests.  The expansion of the Internet has created an efficient means of communication and collaboration that has increased the social capital and efficiency in which individuals collaborate in groups by streamlining communication and collaboration, publicly sharing information, and breaking geographic boundaries.

The Internet

The Internet is series of connections between computers that can send and receive digital information and allows for connected machines to communicate with one another.(Best 226:369).  These series of connections create a large scale network, called the Internet, that allows any computers to transfer information to another computer on the same network.   The exchange of digital information creates a connected virtual world where users can communicate and collaborate with individuals without regard for geographic location.  The Internet offers services for users to engage in social interactions like, “commercial exchange, political engagement, recreation, psychological support and personal companionship.” Users are allowed to share information, express opinions, ask for advice and receive help. (Best 2006:392)  These tools have created a public platform to create and share information between communities and groups of individuals who have common interests.   One of the Internets most widely used communication tool is e-mail, similar to regular mail but can transfer a message in a matter of seconds to anywhere around the world.   With computers being able to process and transfer information and data at incredibly fast speeds, the Internet has become an efficient replacement to conventional information outlets like mail, newspapers, and even the telephone.

Social Capital

Social capital, the connections within social networks and “features of social life that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives”(Putnam, 1995:67) is being dramatically changed by new tools which utilize the Internet.   Social capital is believed to result from participation in voluntary associations which help define norms, trust and collective resources that are essential to community life” (Scott) 2005:1  The Internet allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to connect and communicate with other individuals with computers, allowing individuals sharing a common interest to participate and share their ideas and opinions.  The Internet is changing the way in which individuals communicate and interact in groups, it has allowed for the creating of special interest groups that are not tied to a specific location or time.  It is still questioned weather these online interests groups can count as voluntary associations that are essential to community life. Robert Putnam argues that the United States is suffering from a decline in “social capital” since the 1950’s resulting in the decline in civic organizations, joint family time, church and other community activities.  (Williams 2006 p14).    Putnam’s work, written in 1995, states the main reason for the decline in social capital being the invention of the television, which has created “privatization of leisure time” and has allowed Americans to focus their attention onto a screen instead of interacting with those immediately around us.  The television and the Internet are similar in that they both deliver information into a screen very quickly, yet the Internet is a medium for two way communication, while the television is a one way information stream.

Internet and the TV

Since the exponential growth of the Internet in recent years, Putnam could also imply that the technology of the Internet is also decreasing social capital, however the television and the computer have main differences.  A television is a one way information stream, news and television shows are broadcasted to a mass population, with the mass population not being able to respond back.  In the case of the Internet, information is presented on a page, such as a blog (web log) or a forum, and individuals have the choice to actively participate and can voice their opinion by writing a response or comment.  The Internet creates a public forum for individuals to post their knowledge, ideas, and interest and can communication and collaboration with other individuals, where as the television is a one way stream of information.  The Internet has the capabilities to both the upload and download of information, this capability encouraged individuals to share their ideas as well as content such as videos and pictures.   Unlike a television where information is being soaked in, the Internet is a way for people to connect and communicate through a computer,  and does so very efficiently, increasing the cooperation of groups.  A computer however can only used by a single person at a time, whereas a television can be viewed by many people.   Many times a television series bring together close friends to watch and enjoy entertainment, the computer connects friends over distance through digital communications.  The evolution of the Internet has created a virtual space for people to communicate their ideas and collaborate with others and has allowed for the creation of groups that are not restricted by boundaries, which are considered online communities.

Online Communities

Online communities are “groups of people with common interest that communicate regularly, and for some duration, in an organized way over the Internet”( Bowl,  p2).  The Internet provides tools for individuals to interact and communicate in online communities such as chat rooms, forums, blogs, social networks, and instant messengers.  All these tools can be leveraged by users to stay in contact with distant friends, easily collaborate with large groups, and create a community where ideas and knowledge can be shared.  This allows individuals to either seek an existing group online by using search engines, or to create their own group to share their knowledge and experience with one another in a public platform.  Online communities are not limited to their geographic location, letting  groups communicate from anywhere around the world without regards to space or time.   Online communities usually share a common interest which binds them together and allows like-minded individuals to connect with other.
Online communities work best when members are likely to meet, are able to identify each other, and can identify others interests and their trustworthiness. (bowl :4)  It has been shown that the most successful online communities are those that already have preexisting relationships, and they use tools offered online to help stay connected and streamline the process of organizing discussion and events.()  Websites such as craigslist.org allows local communities to post classifieds ads on a public forum for free.  This has revolutionized the way people buy and sell items within a local community and has greatly improved the efficiency on how people exchange goods and interact within a local community. (craigslist.org)  As online communities become more prevalent on the Internet, the affects on social capital are still unclear.

Local Communities Coming Together

The Internets  main power is the transfer of and sharing of public data with quick speeds.  It can provides a public forum for community members to communicate about local matters.  It was found that the Internet is being used by individuals who are already participating in a groups or organization, and they are using the tools of the Internet to increase the efficiency of their organization.  This means the Internet brings together those that are already tied to an existing community, and is used to “mobilize and organize individuals who were already civically engaged”(Stern :421)   Creating a public forum where a local community can publish and share their public opinion creates a virtual place where an existing community can contribute, collaborate and organize to benefit their group.  Local communities are using the tools offered by the Internet to help accomplish more and to supplement their existing work flow.  It has also been shown that the more users of the Internet are involved in online organizations and political activity, then they are more likely to be involved in offline organizations and political activities.  People in offline groups use the Internet  to extend their participation to their existing groups.(Williams 2005)
A main use of the Internet is to interact and maintain ties with friends.   Studies have shown that the Internet is used to maintain relationships with distant friends, but overall, “communication is lower with distant than nearby friends.”(James 2005) This shows us that online interaction and communication helps strengthen existing ties between friends and is used as a supplementary tool to maintain friendships.(Williams 2005)  Friends can organize meetings through e-mail or instant messaging, as well as communicate through the Internet and social websites.

Anonnymous Groups Weak Ties

Many times Internet users participate in group discussions online with anonymous users that share a common interest.  Since members have no preexisting ties and are bonded by a common interest, these social ties between members as perceived as weak ties, and do not warrant the increase in social capital.  Social ties are bound by trust, honesty, accountability all of which is identified with a person’s identity.  It is difficult for to perceive an Internet users identity since many of the social factors are hidden behind a computer and identity must be obtained only though their written communication skills and not their personal identity. (Best 398)  These weak ties which relate hide the identity of an individual behind a computer leads to weak social ties between anonymous Internet users and do not increase social capital.
In order for a group to work efficiently, there must be a certain amount of trust.  In the case of the Internet, there are many unknown users that hide behind alias and create an online identity that is different from their personal identity.  It can be hard to  gain trust in individuals when social barriers such as race, gender and age are not displayed online, and where social norms online are very different from real life.  However, most online community websites enable users to register an account, and with that account they are given a reputation meter.  As the user completes certain tasks, their reputation or rating can be positive or negative.  This can be attributed to their trustworthiness, as in the case of ebay.com, the Internets largest online auction website,  as a user completes positive transaction, their transaction can be rated and also given feedback. This allows users to benefit from the past experiences with users and creates a situation where it would be beneficial to not cheat so that a users reputation does not get tarnished.   It is easy to portray a false identity online like the New Yorker states in a cartoon, “nobody knows your a dog”, however websites have features embedded in them so that the risks of trust are diminished.

Miscommunication

    In a study reported by New York Times, it was found that face-to-face interaction is full of information.  We interpret tone, body language, pacing and other factors besides the verbal message to convey a message being transferred.  In sending an e-mail, typed words lack rich emotional information that would have been transferred through a phone conversation.  Many times words have different meanings through different tonal pitch inflections and pitch inflection can create a positive or negative spin on a sentence.  Through e-mail their is no verbal tone, no verbal pitch which can create confusion in interpretation, especially when communicating with an anonymous individual.(Goleman 2007:1)   Although e-mail is quick and efficient, it increases the chances of miscommunication and mis-interpretation, leading to possible conflicts which could have been avoided with a personal phone call.(Daniel, 2007)   The use of e-mail also leads to the decline in phone conversations, which creates social isolation, as the time it takes to respond to e-mail is not instant as in a real conversation.  The use of e-mail creates a social isolation and a distant connection that lacks emotional content that can lead to a decline is social capital.

Internet Isolation

The increase in e-mail usage has shown a decline in routine friendly greetings around an office, leaving individuals feeling disconnected.   Many times the use of the Internet creates an isolation from the social world.  Instead of walking down the hallway to greet a co-worker, an instant message is sent.  This leads to depersonalized communication and a sense of social isolation. In the case of Internet e-commerce websites, Internet users can order from online stores and get packages sent to their house instead of going out to the store to buy goods where they might meet a friend.  Many once social activities are now being replaced by Internet stores, such as hanging out at the mall, or the library and the movie store.  These Internet websites are of moving individuals out of the public and into their house where they are social isolated from  the social world. (Williams 2005:14)
Computer are an individualistic tool, usually used by a single person.  The Internet can be used for other means than communicating, such as watching videos, playing games, and soaking in information.   It can be seen that Internet use leads to decreased communication with family members in the same household.  Instead of spending quality family time at the dinner table, children are hooked onto the Internet communicating with their friends on social networks such as myspace or facebook, resulting in a decrease of social capital.  Cases have shown that increase in Internet usage is associated with “declines in participants’ communication with family members in the households, decline in the size of their social circle, and increase in their depression and loneliness.”  (Hopkins, 2004) Spending  large amounts of time in a digital world with out emotional or social contact can have negative effects on both and individuals social capital as well as psychological well being.

Gloabization

The Internet allows individuals to connect with one another around the world.  No longer are groups constrained to their geographic location, they can venture out onto the Internet and find other individuals with the same interests.  Individuals from all around the world can now come together and create a community over the Internet.  Those that were restricted to a community out of geographic or time constraints can now participate with others.  It has opened up the doors for global economic partnership, political activism and the sharing of collective knowledge.  With the Internet creating a public platform for communication, regular individuals are no becoming reporters.  Groups can communicate and share information about local events all around the world.  Personal stories can make a deep impact on the whole of the global war.

Conclusion

The Internet is a powerful tool that when utilized correctly can increase the efficiency of a group by enabling users to easily communicate and collaborate with each other.  Online communication is not meant to replace phone or face-to-face communication, but can be used to increase the efficiency of communication with an existing group.  It allows for group a public forum where knowledge, opinions and ideas can be shared in a community.  It has been shown that most only communication involves pre-existing relationships and the Internet is used to supplement and help maintain those existing relationships.  There are many powerful tools on the Internet that enable groups to organize and collaborate and to efficiently work together to achieve a means.  In some cases, the Internet creates social isolation by creating a virtual world where identity can become anonymous, however, when used correctly, it can increase social capital within local communities and can improve the social capital amongst friends and distant families.  The Internet is evolving at an exponential pace and as new tools and services become available, social capital will be affected in different ways.  The change in social capital depends on the individual using the Internet and for what purpose they use it.

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