By Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield & Cliff Lampe
Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media Michigan State University
This study examines the relationship between use of Facebook, a popular online social network site, and the formation and maintenance of social capital. In addition to assessing bonding and bridging social capital, we explore a dimension of social capital that assesses one's ability to stay connected with members of a previously inhabited community, which we call maintained social capital. Regression analyses conducted on results from a survey of undergraduate students (N=286) suggest a strong association between use of Facebook and the three types of social capital, with the strongest relationship being to bridging social capital. In addition, Facebook usage was found to interact with measures of psychological well-being, suggesting that it might provide greater benefits for users experiencing low self-esteem and low life satisfaction.
Social network sites (SNSs) such as such as Friendster, CyWorld, and MySpace allow individuals to present themselves, articulate their social networks, and establish or maintain connections with others. These sites can be oriented towards work-related contexts (e.g., LinkedIn.com), romantic relationship ...
initiation (the original goal of Friendster.com), connecting those with shared interests such as music or politics (e.g., MySpace.com), or the college student population (the original incarnation of Facebook.com). Participants may use the sites to interact with people they already know offline or to meet new people. The online social network application analyzed in this article, Facebook, enables its users to present themselves in an online profile, accumulate "friends" who can post comments on each other's pages, and view each other's profiles. Facebook members can also join virtual groups based on common interests, see what classes they have in common, and learn each others' hobbies, interests, musical tastes, and romantic relationship status through the profiles.
Facebook constitutes a rich site for researchers interested in the affordances of social networks due to its heavy usage patterns and technological capacities that bridge online and offline connections. We believe that Facebook represents an understudied offline to online trend in that it originally primarily served a geographically-bound community (the campus). When data were collected for this study, membership was restricted to people with a specific host institution email address, further tying offline networks to online membership. In this sense, the original incarnation of Facebook was similar to the wired Toronto neighborhood studied by Hampton and Wellman (e.g., Hampton, 2002; Hampton & Wellman, 2003), who suggest that information technology may enhance place-based community and facilitate the generation of social capital.1 Previous research suggests that Facebook users engage in "searching" for people with whom they have an offline connection more than they "browse" for complete strangers to meet (Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2006).
Online SNSs support both the maintenance of existing social ties and the formation of new connections. Much of the early research on online communities assumed that individuals using these systems would be connecting with others outside their pre-existing social group or location, liberating them to form communities around shared interests, as opposed to shared geography (Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Gulia, & Haythornthwaite, 1996). A hallmark of this early research is the presumption that when online and offline social networks overlapped, the directionality was online to offline—online connections resulted in face-to-face meetings. For instance, Parks and Floyd (1996) report that one-third of their respondents later met their online correspondents face-to-face. As they write, "These findings imply that relationships that begin on line rarely stay there" (n.p.).
Although this early work acknowledged the ways in which offline and online networks bled into one another, the assumed online to offline directionality may not apply to today's SNSs that are structured both to articulate existing connections and enable the creation of new ones. However, because there is little empirical research that addresses whether members use SNSs to maintain existing ties or to form new ones, the social capital implications of these services are unknown.
An Overview of Facebook
Created in 2004, by 2007 Facebook was reported to have more than 21 million registered members generating 1.6 billion page views each day (Needham & Company, 2007). The site is tightly integrated into the daily media practices of its users: The typical user spends about 20 minutes a day on the site, and two-thirds of users log in at least once a day (Cassidy, 2006; Needham & Company, 2007). Capitalizing on its success among college students, Facebook launched a high school version in early September 2005. In 2006, the company introduced communities for commercial organizations; as of November 2006, almost 22,000 organizations had Facebook directories (Smith, 2006). In 2006, Facebook was used at over 2,000 United States colleges and was the seventh most popular site on the World Wide Web with respect to total page views (Cassidy, 2006).
Much of the existing academic research on Facebook has focused on identity presentation and privacy concerns (e.g., Gross & Acquisti, 2005; Stutzman, 2006). Looking at the amount of information Facebook participants provide about themselves, the relatively open nature of the information, and the lack of privacy controls enacted by the users, Gross and Acquisti (2005) argue that users may be putting themselves at risk both offline (e.g., stalking) and online (e.g., identify theft). Other recent Facebook research examines student perceptions of instructor presence and self-disclosure (Hewitt & Forte, 2006; Mazer, Murphy, & Simonds, 2007), temporal patterns of use (Golder, Wilkinson, & Huberman, 2007), and the relationship between profile structure and friendship articulation (Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2007).
In contrast to popular press coverage which has primarily focused on negative outcomes of Facebook use stemming from users’ misconceptions about the nature of their online audience, we are interested in situations in which the intended audience for the profile (such as well-meaning peers and friends) and the actual audience are aligned. We use Facebook as a research context in order to determine whether offline social capital can be generated by online tools. The results of our study show that Facebook use among college-age respondents was significantly associated with measures of social capital.
Social Capital: Online and Offline
Social capital broadly refers to the resources accumulated through the relationships among people (Coleman, 1988). Social capital is an elastic term with a variety of definitions in multiple fields (Adler & Kwon, 2002), conceived of as both a cause and an effect (Resnick, 2001; Williams, 2006). Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) define social capital as "the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition" (p. 14). The resources from these relationships can differ in form and function based on the relationships themselves.
Social capital has been linked to a variety of positive social outcomes, such as better public health, lower crime rates, and more efficient financial markets (Adler & Kwon, 2002). According to several measures of social capital, this important resource has been declining in the U.S. for the past several years (Putnam, 2000). When social capital declines, a community experiences increased social disorder, reduced participation in civic activities, and potentially more distrust among community members. Greater social capital increases commitment to a community and the ability to mobilize collective actions, among other benefits. Social capital may also be used for negative purposes, but in general social capital is seen as a positive effect of interaction among participants in a social network (Helliwell & Putnam, 2004).
For individuals, social capital allows a person to draw on resources from other members of the networks to which he or she belongs. These resources can take the form of useful information, personal relationships, or the capacity to organize groups (Paxton, 1999). Access to individuals outside one's close circle provides access to non-redundant information, resulting in benefits such as employment connections (Granovetter, 1973). Moreover, social capital researchers have found that various forms of social capital, including ties with friends and neighbors, are related to indices of psychological well-being, such as self esteem and satisfaction with life (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; Helliwell & Putnam, 2004).
Putnam (2000) distinguishes between bridging and bonding social capital. The former is linked to what network researchers refer to as "weak ties," which are loose connections between individuals who may provide useful information or new perspectives for one another but typically not emotional support (Granovetter, 1982). Alternatively, bonding social capital is found between individuals in tightly-knit, emotionally close relationships, such as family and close friends. After briefly describing the extant literature on these two forms of social capital and the Internet, we introduce an additional dimension of social capital that speaks to the ability to maintain valuable connections as one progresses through life changes. This concept, "maintained social capital," permits us to explore whether online network tools enable individuals to keep in touch with a social network after physically disconnecting from it.
Social Capital and the Internet
The Internet has been linked both to increases and decreases in social capital. Nie (2001), for example, argued that Internet use detracts from face-to-face time with others, which might diminish an individual's social capital. However, this perspective has received strong criticism (Bargh & McKenna, 2004). Moreover, some researchers have claimed that online interactions may supplement or replace in-person interactions, mitigating any loss from time spent online (Wellman, Haase, Witte, & Hampton, 2001). Indeed, studies of physical (e.g., geographical) communities supported by online networks, such as the Netville community in Toronto or the Blacksburg Electronic Village, have concluded that computer-mediated interactions have had positive effects on community interaction, involvement, and social capital (Hampton & Wellman, 2003; Kavanaugh, Carroll, Rosson, Zin, & Reese, 2005).
Recently, researchers have emphasized the importance of Internet-based linkages for the formation of weak ties, which serve as the foundation of bridging social capital. Because online relationships may be supported by technologies like distribution lists, photo directories, and search capabilities (Resnick, 2001), it is possible that new forms of social capital and relationship building will occur in online social network sites. Bridging social capital might be augmented by such sites, which support loose social ties, allowing users to create and maintain larger, diffuse networks of relationships from which they could potentially draw resources (Donath & boyd, 2004; Resnick, 2001; Wellman et al., 2001). Donath and boyd (2004) hypothesize that SNSs could greatly increase the weak ties one could form and maintain, because the technology is well-suited to maintaining such ties cheaply and easily.
Based on this prior work, we propose the following hypothesis:
H1: Intensity of Facebook use will be positively associated with individuals' perceived bridging social capital.
In Putnam's (2000) view, bonding social capital reflects strong ties with family and close friends, who might be in a position to provide emotional support or access to scarce resources. Williams (2006) points out that little empirical work has explicitly examined the effects of the Internet on bonding social capital, although some studies have questioned whether the Internet supplements or supplants strong ties (see Bargh & McKenna, 2004, for a review). It is clear that the Internet facilitates new connections, in that it provides people with an alternative way to connect with others who share their interests or relational goals (Ellison, Heino, & Gibbs, 2006; Horrigan, 2002; Parks & Floyd, 1996). These new connections may result in an increase in social capital; for instance, a 2006 Pew Internet survey reports that online users are more likely to have a larger network of close ties than non-Internet users, and that Internet users are more likely than non-users to receive help from core network members (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006). However, it is unclear how social capital formation occurs when online and offline connections are closely coupled, as with Facebook. Williams (2006) argues that although researchers have examined potential losses of social capital in offline communities due to increased Internet use, they have not adequately explored online gains that might compensate for this. We thus propose a second hypothesis on the relationship between Facebook use and close ties:
H2: Intensity of Facebook use will be positively associated with individuals' perceived bonding social capital.
Online social network tools may be of particular utility for individuals who otherwise have difficulties forming and maintaining both strong and weak ties. Some research has shown, for example, that the Internet might help individuals with low psychological well-being due to few ties to friends and neighbors (Bargh & McKenna, 2004). Some forms of computer-mediated communication can lower barriers to interaction and encourage more self-disclosure (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002; Tidwell & Walther, 2002); hence, these tools may enable connections and interactions that would not otherwise occur. For this reason, we explore whether the relationship between Facebook use and social capital is different for individuals with varying degrees of self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1989) and satisfaction with life (Diener, Suh, & Oishi, 1997; Pavot & Diener, 1993), two well-known and validated measures of subjective well-being. This leads to the two following pairs of hypotheses:
H3a: The relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bridging social capital will vary depending on the degree of a person's self esteem.
H3b: The relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bridging social capital will vary depending on the degree of a person's satisfaction with life.
H4a: The relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bonding social capital will vary depending on the degree of a person's self esteem.
H4b: The relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bonding social capital will vary depending on the degree of a person's satisfaction with life.
Maintained Social Capital and Life Changes
Social networks change over time as relationships are formed or abandoned. Particularly significant changes in social networks may affect one's social capital, as when a person moves from the geographic location in which their network was formed and thus loses access to those social resources. Putnam (2000) argues that one of the possible causes of decreased social capital in the U.S. is the increase in families moving for job reasons; other research has explored the role of the Internet in these transitions (Cummings, Lee, & Kraut, 2006; Wellman et al., 2001). Wellman et al. (2001), for example, find that heavy Internet users rely on email to maintain long distance relationships, rather than using it as a substitute for offline interactions with those living nearby.
Some researchers have coined the term "friendsickness" to refer to the distress caused by the loss of connection to old friends when a young person moves away to college (Paul & Brier, 2001). Internet technologies feature prominently in a study of communication technology use by this population by Cummings, Lee, and Kraut (2006), who found that services like email and instant messaging help college students remain close to their high school friends after they leave home for college. We therefore introduce a measure focusing specifically on the maintenance of existing social capital after this major life change experienced by college students, focusing on their ability to leverage and maintain social connections from high school.
Young adults moving to college need to create new networks at college. However, they often leave friends from high school with whom they may have established rich networks; completely abandoning these high school networks would mean a loss of social capital. Granovetter (1973, 1982) has suggested that weak ties provide more benefit when the weak tie is not associated with stronger ties, as may be the case for maintained high school relationships. To test the role of maintained high school relationships as weak, bridging ties, we adapted questions about general bridging relationships, such as those in Williams (2006), to be specific to maintained relationships with high school acquaintances as opposed to close friends. We call this concept "maintained social capital." In keeping with the thrust of our prior hypotheses about the role of Facebook and bridging social capital, we propose the following:
H5: Intensity of Facebook use will be positively associated with individuals' perceived maintained social capital.
A random sample of 800 Michigan State University (MSU) undergraduate students was retrieved from the MSU registrar's office. All 800 students were sent an email invitation from one of the authors, with a short description of the study, information about confidentiality and incentives, and a link to the survey. Two reminder emails were sent to those who had not responded. Participants were compensated with a $5 credit to their on-campus spending accounts. The survey was hosted on Zoomerang (http://www.zoomerang.com), an online survey hosting site, and was fielded in April 2006. Only undergraduate users were included in our sampling frame. A total of 286 students completed the online survey, yielding a response rate of 35.8% (see Table 1 for sample demographics). Demographic information about non-responders was not available; therefore we do not know whether a bias existed in regards to survey participation. However, when we compare the demographics of our sample to information we have about the MSU undergraduate population as a whole, our sample appears to be representative with a few exceptions. Female, younger, in-state, and on-campus students were slightly overrepresented in our sample.2
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