Social capital, the ability of individuals or groups to mobilize social resources for certain results, has been the focus of academic investigation for nearly a century. Beginning with rural communities, there’s been sustained interest in identifying the sources and strength of social capital. Contemporary inquires have focused on the number of connections and the strength of those connections in any given social network. As the volume of data from online networks, and access to it, has increased, more effort has gone into computing tie strength as a single measure of social capital. The assumption is that by accurately assessing individual or group network connections we can assign them corresponding social capital values.
If we think of Social Capital like money (as the name implies) we do not have too look far for real world economic examples that would back this assertion. We all know of individuals who live beyond their means, and history is filled with stories of people living huge lavish lifestyles when secretly they are broke. Also, people will dress or act a certain way to imply that they have more wealth than they really do. If social capital really is like economic capital then we know the appearance of wealth can be faked.
A way to measure social capital that would go beyond appearances would be to measures people’s spending of it. If we see an individual spend social capital then we at least know they had a certain amount. While this may not let us know their total social wealth, it at least gives us a more concrete indicator of wealth than just appearances.
Social media gives us a way to measure and test these ideas about social capital transactions. Often people make requests of their contacts through social media for certain actions. We can take this signal a user spending, or at least trying to spend, their social capital for behavior in others. Whether this request is fulfilled and by how many people gives us an indicator of wether the initiator’s social capital was accepted and sufficient.
This transactional approach would allow us to look at social capital out in the world, instead of as a static relationship. It would also help us determine if the analogy of capital is appropriate. Instead of social power being something that is lost when used, it may be more like trust where it exists at a set state regardless of usage.
If a transactional approach to social capital determines that social capital is like economic capital then we can make predictions, based on spending trends, when a user will have social capital and is in a position to spend it. This knowledge would be a boon to advertisers, business, and social movements.
The technology now exists where, in certain environments, we can track a person’s social transactions. Studying and researching these activities could lead to a more complete definition of social capital and allow us to use this information in more active and predictive ways.