Social Media Bridges

I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of highly educated individuals about a book from nearly 20 years ago, “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam. While the talk went over well with the audience, for me it was a revelatory talk, as creating and giving the talk allowed me to see very clearly why the framework Putnam advanced then may be even more important today.

Putnam brought forward two kinds of social capital, which is the equity we build with others that assures us they will be there if we need them, we are part of a larger community, and we share bonds of trust.

Bonding social capital emerges from shared and insular connections — a tribe, a family, a group of like-minded people sharing the same opinions. Bonding social capital emphasizes what makes the individuals different form others.

Bridging social capital is developed when people share a higher connection, such as definition around an ideal, a creative act, or a team. Bridging social capital downplays differences in order to bring about a greater achievement.

Social capital is not binary. In every situation, both types exist — bridging and bonding. It’s a matter of which dominates, which is amplified, and which drives the ultimate shape of the social connections.

What emerged from this talk was the fact that social media as it currently works emphasizes too often and too intensely social capital of the bonding variety, while being relatively inept or inadequate to develop bridging social capital. This explains the polarization effects of social media, and how it has been exploited to drive wedges in societies around the world.

Bonding social capital is perhaps easier to generate, which might explain why this was social media’s first move. In a recent article in the New York Times, Kara Swisher quotes Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, who recently left Facebook after being micromanaged out by Mark Zuckerberg, with him reflecting that:

Social media is in a pre-Newtonian moment, where we all understand that it works, but not how it works. There are certain rules that govern it and we have to make it our priority to understand the rules, or we cannot control it.

Putnam’s book is a major clue about these rules, and the lack of strong bridging social media may be a major opportunity for the next iteration of social media that works to actually connect (rather than exploit) people, to build communities (rather than driving them into silos), and to support harmonious human relationships (rather than tear them apart).

It’s time to break the bonds, and build the bridges.