Introduction - The Super Medium
While writing this essay, it became clear to me that our upcoming generation can hardly imagine how this world looked like, before the triumph of the internet about ten years ago turned our information-based society upside down. Internet has taken up an enormous speed of growing, that justifies labeling it the Super Medium. Participation is easy and cheap; there is not much technology or expertise necessary, while at the same time traditional forms of media, such as print media, letters, or the telephone are all combined and readily available.
Pertaining to the course background of this paper, the networking component of this medium obviously plays a central role. The Internet facilitates finding partners for any form of interaction. Networking, furthermore, is possible on the societal and the individual level which is a unique feature. These and many more characteristics call for a more detailed examination of the internet with regards to Social Capital. Widespread research about this relation has already been conducted, yet outcomes and interpretations vary drastically.
This paper will bring more order in this conflicting field by tackling the question whether the internet has a positive or negative impact on Social Capital. Thus, first a precise definition of Social Capital is provided. Followed by this, positive arguments about the internet are presented and underpinned by existing research findings. The third section then focuses on major refutations of the internet propagating Social Capital. Ultimately, a concise comparison of both 'sides' shows that the positive impact of the internet overall prevails.
Defining Social Capital
The concept of Social Capital, although it emerged rather recently, has made a tremendous effect on Social Sciences in general. Throughout the semester, effects on economic, political, and societal realms, amongst others, could be observed and analyzed. Unfortunately, the various meanings of Social Capital have also entailed some ambiguity about its actual definition. Hence, I will first state the definition for Social Capital used in this paper, as the sometimes diverse and vague descriptions and ideas about it call for an unambiguous clarification.
Over the past two decades, various scholars have attained manifold outcomes with respect to defining Social Capital. Granovetter (1973) made a first important conceptual contribution by suggesting that the construction of interpersonal relations and networks create Social Capital. Putnam (1995, p.67) defines Social Capital as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” Yet Putnam, 'tracing' de Tocqueville’s (19941837 ) fundamental work of Democracy in America, is likely to narrow down Social Capital by linking it to mere associational engagement and face-to-face relations, which has been rightly criticized by Welzel et al. (2004). Other scholars, such as Knack and Keefer (1997), have refined the conception of Social Capital by emphasizing trust as a further basic component.
For this paper however, it is to refer to Norris (1996) and mainly to Coleman (1990) who highlighted the most essential effect of Social Capital, namely facilitating action among actors within a social structure. Pertaining to the chosen topic, Boulianne (2005) explains that the functional dimension of Social Capital as described by Coleman (1990) is of central importance, including its existence in information channels. As the internet has arguably become the source of information, it is appropriate to also employ this definition.
The merits of the Internet for Social Capital
Examining the internet with regards to Social Capital is indeed special considering as “Social Capital is about networks, and the Net is the network to end all networks” (Putnam, 2000, 171). Yet, as it is about virtual networks, critics arose early around this fact being concerned of an atomization of society. Admittedly, there exist those lonely cyber junkies sitting in the cellar and forgetting about real face-to-face communication, which e.g. Putnam (2000) advocates so much. The internet is clearly neither flawless, nor will solve all problems of this planet; still, this section will display some major advantages and merits of the world wide web for Social Capital and argue that they do outweigh the deficiencies of that technology.
First, the Internet is creating new kinds of public spheres and social capital previously absent from major social and political discourse (Han, 2002, 3). It is not by coincidence that the places of exchange of ideas online have been labeled forums, an allusion to the long established, traditional site of discussion since antiquity. In the new millennium, we simply observe this expansion of public sphere which also entails several prospects. Anonymity, amongst others, is created by this virtual sphere, which means that methods of identification and authentication are intrinsically limited. Consequently, voices of younger people or normally neglected parts of society are more likely to be heard in this environment. Hence, in cyberspace a socially unconstrained sanctuary of diverse opinions and interests can be formed for a creative sphere of communication which undoubtedly helps piling up Social Capital (ibid., 8).