Can Social Networks Create Social Capital?

In September, 2008, Green for All, 1Sky and the We Campaign organized a national day of action — Green Jobs Now — to demand progress on green jobs and a green economy. Tens of thousands of people participated in over 670 events in 40 states. Staff led on-the-ground efforts in just a handful of key cities, while the majority of actions were organized online and offline by activists and other citizens -– volunteers, by and large.

The green jobs day of action was large, strong, and helped set the tone nationally on a key topic in an upcoming election. Discussions about green jobs and green economy policies occurred from local to national levels. Many engaged in those events have continued to be involved in the issue, if not the organization, and some have taken up leadership roles locally or even nationally. Green for All developed a long-term program of on the ground activities to continue engaging participants — and attract new ones.

Online networks were used to help organize the national day of action but the action was not about “likes” or fans or messages. While the online networks may have taken off in terms of size and activity, is that where the power of this day of action was rooted? Or was power based in the individual relationships offline and online, many of which continued to grow and strengthen after this day?

A challenge of our time seems to be building networks of quantity while creating/generating quality from the networks. Planning, reporting, and strategic systems put a priority on numbers instead of narrative. We have two year (or shorter) program cycles that reward immediate, impersonal action instead of relationships.

Online networks have transferred the tools of organizing and programmatic leadership from organizations and placed them into the hands of the citizen/member. Meanwhile, organizations typically approach social networks as a staff-driven, top-down push towards higher numbers of fans, friends, and followers.

Contacts, Connections and Social Capital

Social networks and email lists are built with contacts: email addresses and spur of the moment expressions of interest. Connections are longer-term relationships built on commonalities of interest, geography, conversation and exploration of ideas, place, and trust. The difference between contacts and connections is a central theme in Robert Putnam’s look at social disconnect and the breakdown of American civil society, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2000.

Putnam describes social connections as fabric that, when woven, creates social capital in organizations and societies. Social capital is tangible and malleable. It can be organized and brought to bear upon a situation. One’s amount of social capital can be measured and, when spent, its value can be assessed.

Social contacts are more ethereal, less tangible — almost hypothetical. These are people who have met but do not necessarily know one another. Many are connected only randomly. They may be able to broadcast the events of their day to one another but not ask a personal favor or base a decision on the advice of one another.

Build Social Capital

Many organizations approach social media as a numbers game. Larger numbers of friends/fans/followers indicate strength. Unfortunately, this overlooks the value of real social capital: without organizing and relationship building, social networks are not powerful.

One thing often forgotten when organizations build social networks and make plans to “use” these networks (be it for advocacy, for fundraising, or just to drive traffic to their website — maybe the most common if least helpful use of the network) is the first word: Social

Think about your own, personal, use of Facebook and Twitter. It’s not about the “network”. It is probably not, even for those of us immersed in these issues, about the cause or the politics, either. It is about the social, the personal interaction, the catching up with and hearing from friends.

Alissa Hauser and Marianne Manilov talk about how small, core networks spring up around social needs, not politics or cause. Groups with political and social change goals are stronger and more viable over time when there are opportunities of personal interaction, relationship and trust-building, and sharing stories. Bari Samad, Internet Director at Green for All, characterized it well in a recent conversation. “We have a predisposition to assume that people always want to be activists, and bypass the critical steps of engaging them in conversations and meeting them where they already are,” he said when talking about how many organizations view existing or potential new constituents.

In fact, the bar for activism is higher. Activism: the word itself denotes action. Action takes time. Action that is unplanned or lacking goals and practice often produces unexpected and disappointing results. Time and resources are needed to create more valuable actions — and more productive activists.

Organization are leaving value on the table by not building relationships and opportunities for real, personal, engagement between people and organizations around issues of common concern.

Green for All and others in the Green Jobs Now campaign are, like many organizations (but still too few), providing examples of ways to view online networks as a tool for creating and strengthening long-term power-development in social change campaigns and movements. The networks connect people — allow for interaction — and serve as a jumping off point for building strong relationships.

We hope to explore these jumping off points and look at how to create programs that draw real strength from communities and networks in a session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

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