Social media, social capital and... lolcats?

Social media, social capital and... lolcats?

As my first year statistics students can tell you, I’m not much of a gambling man. But if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you use social media. I’d even guess most of you only found this post because of social media. So let me ask you this. Is social media a blessing or a curse? Does it boost or cripple productivity?

What’s the point of Twitter?

Take Twitter, for example. It’s just a bunch of self-obsessives blathering away about their mundane lives and/or desperately seeking validation, right? Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman blogged a variation on this theme recently while explaining why he doesn’t tweet, suggesting it was a waste of time. Let’s not build a straw man here, though. Krugman wasn’t accusing others of wasting their time by tweeting. Rather, he was saying he felt he had better things to do with his time. Given his expertise in economics and – by assumption – his familiarity with opportunity costs, I have no reason to doubt him.

But if you read through the comments (I know, I know – never read the comments) the discussion shifts quickly from Krugman’s introspection and towards a to-and-fro about the medium. While there are many chirpy commenters sticking up for the platform, there are plenty singing the unmistakably familiar (and frankly, pretty tired) refrains. “Twitter is a service for morons”, chimes one commenter. “How many times are we willing to hear about arugula salads?”, pleads another. The chorus continues. Commenters explain that they don’t tweet “because I don’t believe anyone is interested in what I have for lunch”, that they object to “people tweeting and facebooking every aspect of their and other people’s lives”, or observe the fact that “no one has anything interesting or useful to say in 140 characters”, or suggest that “There is also a great deal of narcissism in the view that one’s offhand 140-character comments are worthy of publication.” Is this true? Is Twitter really nothing more than an unproductive, narcissistic distraction?

Social capital

I can think of one way to defend Twitter and other forms of social media, and that’s using social capital theory. This theory is all about the value of trust and reciprocal relationships between individuals without groups or networks. Though not the first theorist to write on the concept, Robert Putnam popularised many aspects of the idea, including his characterisation of the distinction between bonding capital and bridging capital. Loosely speaking, you can think of bonding capital as being strong ties between people you already know well – close friends and family, for example. Bridging capital is the kind of social capital that helps bridge the gap between yourself and those you don’t know so well – casual acquaintances, or even strangers. The curious thing about this distinction is that while friends and family are obviously worth having, in some respects it’s bridging capital that is more valuable. It helps maintain generalised levels of trust in a society, and can provide you with valuable new perspectives, information or opportunities that you would be unlikely to get from the immediate friends and family with whom you tend to surround yourself.

Investing in social capital takes time and energy. Investing in bridging capital, even though it may be more useful in the long term, can be even costlier, particularly as it almost by definition involves moving further away from the ideas and environments with which you are comfortable. But there are things that can help you do it more easily. Institutions like universities offer individuals an opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, interests and perspectives than their own, for example, as do workplaces, sports clubs, and many other organisations. And I’m comfortable claiming that social media can do it, too, by lowering the costs of investment.

Social capital and social media

To stick with the specific case of Twitter, the platform lets you find, follow and communicate with people you might otherwise never have met. In a 140 character format, the time it takes to offer an opinion, advice, or idea (or to respond to those offered by others) is negligible. If they’re not interested in your opinion, or ignore you, there’s no great cost. But if they engage with you, and establish a shared mutual interest, even if only a tangential and narrow one, then that’s created something valuable. Downside risks are low (instances of aggressive harassment notwithstanding), and the upside risks are high. In terms of investment in social capital, it’s a pretty cheap call option.

That’s not to say this makes the medium necessarily positive. Of course you can use Twitter to spout boring information about your daily diet (though I personally have no problem with people who do so). And there’s nothing to stop people using social capital (whether produced by social media or other forms of interaction) for destructive purposes either.  It turns out, for example, that the role of trust and reciprocity in illegal activity is at least as important as it is in legitimate business (often more so because of the nature of illegal markets), which makes social capital an essential resource in corrupt and criminal activity. Like all forms of capital, it is neither good nor bad – it just is. It is what it is used for and how it is used that determines the positive or negative effects it yields.

Social capital, social media and – yes – lolcats

“Where’s the evidence?”, I hear you ask. Can I give you any examples of Twitter yielding productive results as a result of connections between otherwise unconnected individuals? As it happens, I can, from personal experience (see, New York Times commenters – you can be narcissistic in all kinds of formats!). But first, I need to make a confession. You see, I only read Krugman’s post after a colleague sent me the link. She noted that it was perhaps a bit ironic that it could be read as being about a lack of meaningful content on Twitter (though again, I think Krugman was just musing on his own motivation for steering clear of the platform), while linking directly to a Tumblr page called Econlolcats which only exists because of Twitter.

But that’s not the confession. How did my colleague know Econlolcats wouldn’t have existed without Twitter? This colleague – Gabriela D’Souza – was only my colleague in the sense that about two weeks ago we started up Econlolcats ourselves. We did this having never met in person, never spoken on the phone, and never having communicated in any more than 140 characters over any medium other than Twitter.

What’s more, while we follow each other on Twitter, prior to starting Econlolcats we didn’t engage directly with each other that frequently.  A few weeks back, she tweeted a link to the excellent IR Cats tumblr. Being a fan of both IR and lolcats (we lecturer types are only human, after all), I issued a two-word response of approval. Hardly a big investment or expensive outlay. Gaby suggested we make some economics-themed lolcats, hurling some images my way. I responded with some captions, and in a couple of days we set up a tumblr, a Twitter account and a Facebook page for the world’s first (and leading) peer-remewed pictorial economics journal. With the help of the many external authors who’ve made contributions, we’ve been churning out at least two econlolcats a day since then, and have even garnered mild microfame with endorsements from prominent economists, journalists and the Wall Street Journal.

Are we talking puns or productivity?

“OK, OK”, I hear you interrupt, “So there are people out there who like what you do – in what way is this anything other than proof that you’re both self-obsessed narcissists who are flogging a dead horse, particularly when lolcats are so dated?” First of all, my co-Editor-in-Chief and I firmly maintain the lolcat comedic form is timeless. Second, even if it weren’t, we all know that formal academic publication often lags behind the cutting edge. More importantly though – while the reception has been amazing and undeniably gratifying – the idea was just to have a bit of fun. Well, that and to seize an opportunity to communicate economic principles in simple and light-hearted ways that would entertain and for those just starting to learn them, help them stick in the brain. But regardless of why we’ve done it, the ease with which we’ve done it and the fact that the idea came to fruition is basically down to social media, first of all for establishing a thin connection between Gaby and myself, and then for giving us the ability to capitalise on that at very low cost. It’s dramatically improved our productivity at doing something fun, increasing our own utility and, if the response is anything to go buy, of others, too.

If this all still seems too frivolous for you (utility schmutility!), consider another Twitter-initiated collaboration I had earlier. Economist and Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh, tweeted asking if anyone in Melbourne might be able to access archived copies of some annual reports for him. I had some spare time, so offered to help. Andrew liked my summary of the findings and suggested we collaborate on what became this working paper on Australian executive remuneration, which we have since submitted for formal academic publication. As with Gaby, Andrew and I had never met in real life or spoken on the phone, and first became acquainted via Twitter (before admittedly moving on to email for slightly more lengthy exchanges). Without it, it’s likely we’d never have produced the research we did – at least, not together.

While I understand why some remain sceptical of its usefulness or purpose, I maintain that social media is very much what users make of it. I don’t deny that for some it may be an unwelcome distraction. But it definitely has the ability to create and foster thin ties between individuals and the bridging capital that comes with them, and that resource can be very productive indeed, for those who wish to use it that way.