Becoming a Social Capitalist in the Online World

Social networking web sites such as Friendster and Plaxo allow you to store your friends’ contact details. If these friends are also registered you can contact other people your friends know, and then the people they know. It has been suggested that every person on the planet is connected in as few as six links in such a chain. Are tools as this really useful, or are they just another passing internet trend we will all have forgotten about in six months time?

Social Networks and Social Capital

In many societies the maxim it is who you know rather than what you know rings true, particularly in Africa. The power we have to make changes in our lives often results as much from the people we are connected to than intelligence, knowledge or skills we possess as individuals. In finding a job, building a business, or even finding a future husband or wife we are often successful because of the people we know.

Your social network includes all the people you can turn to for help and who could turn to you for help: your family, your spouse’s family, people you work with, the people you see everyday. Without these people you would feel alone. Other connections exist and allow cooperation – you might help your brother’s friend in building a new house. Your old boss might know someone who can give you a job. These people who live outside your social network, but who are linked to it in some way might be though of as your social capital. We don’t need those people in order to survive, but without them could we thrive?

Social networking software and web sites seek to enhance the ways we use our social capital, and extend it.

Share your friends online

When you join a social networking community such as Friendster or Plaxo you not only give your details, but those of people you know. Often you will be prompted to ask some of your friends to join, although some services allow you to just add friends contact details and access this address book from anywhere.

Once one or more people on your contact list is also a member, you will be able to find out about the people they know. And the people those people know. And on and on until you have the contact details of everyone in the world at your fingertips and an excuse for contacting them (my uncle’s friend’s brother’s wife’s mother’s hair stylist said you might give me a job). That is the theory anyway. In reality, it is likely that it will only be ever be worthwhile looking up people within two or three connections of you. Go beyond this and you may find that the follow you down the street tactics of Arusha’s touts are more enlightened. They at least have the fact you are in the same place in common!

Does Social Networking work?

In many ways, social networking software is a technology that has arisen before anyone has thought of a real purpose for it. However the concepts behind social networking are powerful. Networking is already an established business activity, with events organised in capital cities solely to introduce people to new opportunities. Can this work online where people don’t meet face to face?

Whilst most sites are fairly free form, providing only introductions for no specific purpose, others focus on introducing people to potential boyfriends and girlfriends, others in building business relationships. In these cases the whole point is to get people together face to face – the rest is up to you. What about online only services? What is the point?

Some sites help you use your social network to enhance your online experience. Flickr allows you to quickly share photos with people you know. Eurekster is a search engine which shows web pages in order of how useful people you are linked
to found them.

Of course, there are dangers associated with such networks. If you are a very successful person, inclusion might result in harassment from hundreds of people who expect your help with no real connection. Also, be sure to check sites’ privacy policies before adding all your friends email addresses – you might be signing them up to more junk mail! This last danger is less likely through “roll your own” systems such as FOAF (Friend of a Friend).

In years to come, surviving social networking systems will illustrate which services are useful, and in what way. In the meantime, if any of you have any successes through the use of social networking systems, I’d be happy to hear them.

Interesting Links

Originally published in Arusha Times 314

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