The previous section shows examples and theories applied to different focus areas, but mainly to interactive design; the current sections explores the theory of social capital that support the current research and proposal. All over, the existing knowledge is reviewed and extended through the theories presented.

What is Social Capital

Coined in 1916, by sociologist Lyda Judson Hanifan, far from Internet and OSN’s, the term “social capital” refers to the idea that social networks and communities provide their participants with resources. Several sociologists have used it, with different approaches, to understand interaction and behavior amongst members of communities.

Social capital refers to “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” From this we may infer that participation in social exchanges is determined by the possible benefit outcome; in other words, it is not mere altruistic, but expecting an improvement of individual or group wellbeing (Putnam 67).

For understanding development in civil society, some define it as “an instantiated informal norm that promotes co-operation between two or more individuals,” the more ties someone’s network has, more social capital exists (Fukuyama 7). Others emphasize on the social structure and its value to the actors. It is practical because it provides “resources that can be used by the actors to realize their interests” (Coleman 305).

Fukuyama emphasizes on norms of reciprocity represented in social interactions, but only when they lead to co-operation, then constitute social capital. This means that social capital may be costly or difficult to get (Fukuyama 7).

Social Capital and Social Networks

A means to understand what Social Capital means in the context of society is “by analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital,” this understood as the tools and preparation that improve the individual productivity (Putnam, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital 67).

Robert Putnam has documented a decline since the 1960s in American private and public community, but others suggest that new forms of communication and organization underneath this radar are connecting people, and communities embedded in social networks are replacing groups (Quan-Haase, Wellman and Witte 289).

Information in Social Networks

One form of social capital is the potential for information that resides in social relations. Coleman explains this with an example, “a person who is not deeply interested in current events but who is interested in being informed about important developments can save the time required to read a newspaper if he can get the information he wants from a friend who pays attention to such matters.” This information facilitates action, in other words, the human relations are valuable because they provide information, which is very common on the online communities (310).

This isn’t a new idea, Hiltz and Murray Turof, quoted by Putnam, argued that “we will become the Network Nation, exchanging vast amounts of both information and socio-emotional communications with colleagues, friends and ‘strangers,’ who share similar interests […] we will become a ‘global village’”. There is a sense of community even when we don’t know some of our “contacts” in online communities or social networks, and this is where trust is most important, to motivate interactions grounded on how these would happen in real life (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community 171).

The previous statement is set on an early stage of mobile Internet, smartphones, or touch screen devices; however, it’s an allusion to the fact that telecommunications and conventional ways of social connectedness are “complements, not alternatives” that support and strengthen social bounds on relationships (Putnam 168).

Putnam adds another interesting premise, that mobile devices and internet can complement, not replace, face-to-face communities, which by the way, are already formed in most cases. Additionally, existing challenges regarding social capital and technology are:

  • Make investments in social capital more productive.
  • Use technology to thicken community ties.
  • Enhance social presence, social feedback and social cues.
  • Create community-friendly technology from outside the marketplace.
    to emphasize civic engagement (179).

Behavior in Social Interactions

Almost every form of traditional social groups (tribes, clans, village associations, religious sects, etc.) are based on “shared norms and use these norms to achieve co-operative ends,” however these have a narrow ‘radius of trust’. Modern societies, in contrast, consist of more overlapping groups that permit pass on information, innovation and human resources easier (Fukuyama 9).

Networks of trust, based on Fukuyama.
Networks of trust, based on Fukuyama.

In OSN, productivity is strictly reliant on the “connectedness,” and the motivation to “invest” on interactions for personal and group benefit can be of different nature. Putnam says that altruism, is not the only motivation of social capital, but social networks foster norms of reciprocity that encourage attention to others’ welfare (Putnam 116).

The concept “reciprocity” is sometimes a result of social capital, other times it helps to recognize behavior in OSN; Brown and Pelaprat study how people are brought to participate into social relations, and argue that this kind of behavior depends on reciprocal exchanges, unlike market exchange or utility driven behavior theories. The value of reciprocity lies as a symbolic action “that draws participants into a relation of reciprocal recognition.” The symbol or object is the person giving or reciprocating; and this person, in his/her individuality, is unique and facilitates recognition (Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations).

Reciprocity in online behavior can be traced in examples such as discussion forums, online gaming and, of course, social networks. This examples provide the following lessons when designing for reciprocity:

  1. Designing for encounter.
  2. The public visibility of actions directed at specific others.
  3. Objects and practices outside of the logic of utility and market exchange (Pelaprat and Brown).
Example of a discussion forum
Example of a discussion forum (Discourse.

Additionally, if social capital provides value and that this value may have a symbolic nature that fosters reciprocity, it is possible to say “people with different pieces of the puzzle can collaborate more easily” and to have more efficient networks that strengthen our bounds to the social world (Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community 172)

In the next section, a proposal for the interactive system is presented, based on the principles of networking and the theory of social capital, and given in the context explained before, the one related to PT in an urban setting.