What’s the Opposite of Social Capital?

The NYT magazine has a short piece that should be of interest to social capitalists and network-heads alike: Let Them Eat Tweets. The story ostensibly discusses Twitter, a relatively new and growing bit of networking technology where you can follow everyone from the Washington Post’s political reporter TheFix to OrgTheory’s FabioRojas. Twitter promotes a kind of “ambient awareness”, and adds a new medium for our connectivity. So far so good, right?

According to science fiction author Bruce Sterling, not so much. Here’s an extended quote from the article discussing a speech by Sterling:

“Connectivity is poverty” was how a friend of mine summarized Sterling’s bold theme. Only the poor — defined broadly as those without better options — are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl — original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.

Nice, right? The implications of Sterling’s idea are painful for Twitter types. The connections that feel like wealth to many of us — call us the impoverished, we who treasure our smartphones and tally our Facebook friends — are in fact meager, more meager even than inflated dollars. What’s worse, these connections are liabilities that we pretend are assets. We live on the Web in these hideous conditions of overcrowding only because — it suddenly seems so obvious — we can’t afford privacy. And then, lest we confront our horror, we call this cramped ghetto our happy home!

“Connectivity is poverty.” Given the literature on the value of networks for individuals and organizations, what do you make of a claim like that? Is there nothing to it? Or can we read Sterling as arguing that the obsession with a certain kind of connectivity reinforces, rather than reduces, inequities in the distribution of resources? That is, we think by following our friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter and RSS we are building better, faster, stronger networks that will enable us to get ahead, but we’re really just cementing ourselves in the same place we already were: in the middle, too poor to afford real privacy and luxury, but rich enough to stay connected.

Or, cheekily (and very inaccurately), are networks performative or counterperformative?

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4 Comments

  1. Helena

     /  April 18, 2009

    Nice post! I think that there is an interesting Goffmanian argument to be made about the front stage and the backstage of networking. Sterling appears to talk about the frontstage of networking. He is interested in people’s efforts to manage social relations in the public. But as we know from Goffman’s work, the frontstage is not always a good reflection of the backstage. Scholarship on social capital, in contrast, has so far blurred the front stage – backstage distinction. This research appears to assume that people can activate any of there network connections when they need information, support etc.

    These ideas open up for a new set of interesting research questions. When can people use their network connections for “value creation”? Do social relations managed in the public differ from social relations that are kept private? I also think that there are lots of important questions around the symbolic role of network connections that still have been overlooked in the network literature.

  2. sd

     /  April 18, 2009

    I dont think anyone claims social capital to be the primary source of capital, per se. So maybe it’s us poor folks and penniless intellectuals (!) who need it most ? 😀

  3. Poverty is lack of options and wealth is the opportunity to pick what you prefer the most, no matter if this is to stay connected or isolated around the clock.

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