Let them eat social capital: what the hell is social capital anyway? And can you live on it?
You’ve probably heard of social capital. What you think social capital is will vary according to who explained it to you, but let’s start with the idea that it’s something a bit like money: it’s a currency we can trade or barter in, it’s the value of our networked selves, it’s a measure of worth.
Growing up in the 1980s on a diet of space operas, sci-fi comics and computer games, I was never in any doubt that in the future we’d move away from pounds, dollars and francs to unite behind one currency: Credits (or Creds, for short). You can only imagine my disappointment when the Eurozone missed a trick and chose to call their single currency the Euro. Sci-fi has moved on and while the Credits cliché is still doing good business, the future of money has moved on too. In Cory Doctrow’s Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, characters trade in Whuffie, a future currency pegged to one’s social capital:
“I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented — your personal capital with your friends and neighbors — you more accurately gauged your success.”
Obviously we’re not quite there yet; you can’t go to the bar and “piss away” most of your Whuffie as Doctrow’s characters can but social capital is increasingly talked about and valued in contemporary society. In the same year that Down and out in the Magic Kingdom was published, academic researcher Qihai Huang noted that academic interest in the term ‘social capital’ had exploded through the 1990s and into the start of the 2000s. This academic interest isn’t just abstract, ivory tower work, rather it informs and reflects contemporaneous public policy work from local level initiatives to the decision making and operations of the World Bank. The rockstar academic of this field is Robert Putnam who, building on the work of James Coleman, provided a model to measure social capital; in the bestselling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Putnam linked the membership of clubs and societies to the amount of social capital in a community - and he found America’s cupboards to be pretty bare. His book’s title comes from the observation that, in the 90s communities he studied, people went to bowling allies in small family and friendship groups, not in community leagues as they might have done earlier in the 20th century. Putnam was concerned with the decline of public engagement in all aspects of civic life and measuring social capital gave him a bellwether to track it. If you follow Putnam’s logic then the development of social capital, by encouraging networks to develop, can lead to improvements in civic life and better outcomes for communities and for the individuals within them. Indeed, this is the thinking that the World Bank is using: by actively developing social capital they can build communities that are more resilient and better able to function (in the way that the World Bank needs them to).
At this point it is useful to ask ourselves again: what on Earth is social capital, anyway? The origination of the term ‘social capital’ is most commonly attributed to the French scholar and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu who defined it as the:
aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition
Or put another way, social capital is the value of your access to a set of collectively owned resources that you have in common with a group; it is the value of the network (which is what Putnam and his heirs are trying to measure) but it’s also an individual measure of one’s ability to access and make calls on the resources. Doctrow’s Whuffie is a measure of the latter: it’s the esteem that allows an individual to draw upon the shared resources. In a sense Whuffie is already here because every time you ask a group of people for help you are drawing on social capital and you’re spending against your standing with that group. We all do this every day, every time we ask for help and that help is given with no expectation of payment. But would it be possible to live on social capital alone? Lloyd Davis, a social artist and community builder, has tried.
Lloyd started a networking group for people interested in the social web called Tuttle Club. In 2010 a group of Tuttle Club members took an extended trip to the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. The group took a longer than needed route, documenting things as they went and planned the whole adventure by asking their network for ideas and to help them raise funds. For his trip to the festival in 2011, Lloyd had a much more ambitious plan: to get across the USA, coast to coast, relying solely on the power of his network.
“The inspiration for it was that I was fed up with having theoretical conversations about what you might be able to do with this stuff that you accrue from participating in online social networks” he told me. “Some people like to term that as what’s the ‘return on investment in contributing to social media’. And so I was flippantly saying the return on social investment is social capital.”
Lloyd flew to San Francisco on the 1st March 2011. What followed was an odyssey that was part Phileas Fogg, part Dice Man: Lloyd had no itinerary, no accommodation, very little cash but he did have a plane ticket home from New York on the 31st March and he did have his network.
“I had no idea how I was going to get from there to New York and I certainly didn’t have enough money to just buy a plane ticket. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see what would happen if I just showed up in a town and said ‘OK I’m trying to get from here to South By Southwest. Which way can I go and who can I go stay with along the way?’”
Lloyd’s trip relied on his network planning and guiding his route for him, sending him to see and do interesting things and finding places for him to stay. In this way he was able to test the social capital of his network: could they really get him across the States, just on the power of their connections? In the end they could; Lloyd made it New York and he made it South By Southwest too but strangely it was at South By Southwest, that Mecca of the Digerati, amongst his own people, the people who should really have understood his project, that things nearly came undone for Lloyd: he got stuck at South By.
“I’d get leads of people who were supposedly driving from Austin to New Orleans and would be happy to take me and then when I actually got onto them they’d say ‘No. I don’t know who you are. This is a bit weird. Leave us alone please!’”
In the end of course, he found a place to rest and regroup in Texas and he did get to New Orleans where, with excellent narrative rhythm, Lloyd went from a dramatic bottoming out to have his most memorable moments of the trip right there in Lafayette.
But the kindness of strangers can only get you so far; cash was needed for Lloyd’s trip too but social capital can manifest as money. For Lloyd it was simply a case of asking, though learning to ask for things, and to take them, was, he says, a big part of the journey. He was able to raise money through a crowdfunding drive to cover a wide range of things: flights, a rail pass, sundries but also the capital needed to sustain his domestic situation back in the UK.
Reactions to his funding call were mixed at the time. Some people were only to happy to contribute, others accused Lloyd of simply begging money to fund his holiday and his whims. Lloyd puts a lot of the negative reaction down to jealousy, and I can see how that might be the case: it’s a neat idea, it’s a great adventure, and there’s definitely a book in it. There’s something else though, something which I remember thinking at the time: asking people to fund your entire life – your rent, your bills, all of your commitments – for a month while you put that life on hold and go to America blogging is hugely provocative. We can react to that with excitement and awe, but we’re as likely to push back at it because there is something fundamentally challenging about boxing off life, putting a price on it, and then asking for that price to just go away for a while. I put that to Lloyd: how could he ask for those things? How could that possibly be acceptable? “I call myself a social artist and part of that is about asking for things that are unacceptable” he told me. There’s something in that, I think: we won’t ever find the acceptable limits of behaviour unless someone pushes at the edges.
Lloyd’s trip was a brief adventure in living precariously but afterwards he continued to live a nomadic life in the UK, taking on projects and moving across the country to anywhere he was needed, so long as they could find him a bed. Social capital was at the heart of this, but it’s hard to sustain yourself on that alone. Lloyd talked about his adventures with living through his network as being about “a money economy plus something else”. “I do live in the money world” he told me “I haven’t completely opted out. I haven’t had the balls to do that basically”. So you can’t live on social capital alone, it would seem but if you are happy to live precariously it can get you a long way: it can get you across a continent.
So, we may be a while off living in a world where we can spend freely on our reputations, but in the meantime we can live in “the money economy plus” and if you know how to work the network, you could maybe get a little richer. I spoke to Nick Booth whose company specialises in showing organisations how to use social media for social good about some of the more day to day ways in which focussing on social capital might help you to become better off: “a big part of my work is persuading public services or charities that if they concentrate on getting relationships right regardless of what they’re for, when they need to make something happen it’ll happen better.”
Nick’s idea then, his concept of social capital, is that it needs to be built over a period of time so that it can be called upon and used for action; it’s an ongoing process that builds a network and what Nick terms “a stock pot of social capital”. “I talk quite a lot about groups like Birmingham Bloggers and the Grassroots Channel as accidental mechanisms by which people in Birmingham acquired social capital” he told me “and they went on to do things with it. But they didn’t set out to acquire it to do those things.”
So a network can build social capital overtime and then can be pushed towards an action that wasn’t known at the outset. Nick offered some case studies: “Jon Bounds doing the Big City Plan Talk website or Stef and other people doing the BCC DIY website or me and others growing the Social Media Surgery network they were only really achievable because of the times people had spent getting pissed together or dicking around together. So they were built almost entirely on social capital. All of those three things happened without any money. They were built on individual will and social capital.”
When Lloyd Davis started talking to people about the social web, was he playing a long con just to get the network to pay for him to cross America? I don’t think so, but nonetheless that’s an outcome he got from working hard to run events for people. Lloyd built a network and he developed a right to call on it to do things. Although what he asked for, a month of travel paid for by friends and strangers, sounds like a lot, he’s probably still in credit; Nick Booth suggested to me that Lloyd’s Tuttle club has helped dozens of people to meet the right partners at the right time and to push forward with new businesses and so, he suggested to me, the value, in money terms, that others have taken from the network is much higher than anything Lloyd has ever taken out. That’s a good point. I feel a little bad now for asking Lloyd if he thought he was a “social capitalist”, extracting surplus value from his network, taking a social profit as dividend. That question surprised Lloyd a little, but he conceded that it could look like that.
So that’s social capital then: a possible future for what we now call money, but also real now and able to enrich your soul if not your bank balance. Though of course, if we are cynical about it in the “economy plus” of money and Whuffie, we can lever our network towards a profit. Here’s a final example: you’re reading this work because it was backed by Contributoria’s members. This is a growing community but within it are groups of people who know each other already and have a track record of communal action. It took me three direct messages to people in my network to get enough points to flow in to back my article. I couldn’t live on my social capital as Lloyd did, but it can help me to achieve an outcome and in this case it’ll pay for my summer holiday. I’ll be sure to send you all a postcard to share.
Lloyd recorded our interview in full and it is available on his blog
You’ll find a summary of some academic literature on social capital and a list of references on my work blog