Last night I went to my good friend Justin’s very first short film premier at The Globe Cinema. With it’s nostalgic Marquee sign showcasing “Wrestling With The Past” in its iconic black bold lettering, the Globe lived up to its reputation of fostering the film scene here in Calgary. I pulled up to see a long line of eager friends taking pictures and giving hugs. Inside, the place was packed! From grandparents to mohawk sporting hardcore music fans. Close friends, to friends of friends, all were there to support and cheer on the film producers. I knew no one except the guest of honour but somehow I was connected. I felt like I was a part of this community of eclectic and excited film buffs. This is the utility of social capital and it’s what will determine the success or failure of our society.
I recently finished reading, well actually listening to, the audiobook of Bowling Alone. A book by American political scientist and Harvard Professor Dr. Robert Putnam about the collapse and revival of the American community and the importance of social capital. Let me tell ya, last night, I could see its importance play out in that packed and dimly lit theatre.
What is social capital
Here’s how Wikipedia describes social capital: “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively”. Basically, how many people are in, and the strength of, your social network.
I always thought of social capital as being how many contacts you have in your phone when you find yourself needing help to move a deep freeze into the basement because hunting season turned out to be very successful… True story! But social capital is more than just having some friends to call. It’s the heartbeat of a functioning democracy and is what will help you achieve meaningful goals in your life.
We can further destruct social capital into two parts: bridging and bonding.
Let’s start with the latter. Bonding social capital typically refers to those relationships that are closest in our life. The people on the other end of carrying that deep freeze or the ones who come to our film premieres. It’s the bonding social capital I think of when I say friends helping friends. They are those first tier connections or our immediate circle of friends and family.
Last night, it was clear to me that my friend Justin had a very strong network. Friends and family gathered together to see him succeed. Seeing this manifest as a crowd of people applauding and cheering was like witnessing this physical wave of support behind Justin. The wave that brought him through the difficulties he endured while making this film, pushing him towards the goals he set out for himself.
It doesn’t just require bonding social capital to make a great film, it’s the bridging social capital that creates opportunity. We can think of bridging social capital, or weak tie relationships, as those friends of a friend. These are the people who can hook you up or get you a job. The opportunities that bridging social capital provides goes beyond just making a great film though. Its effects in the educational sector can be a profound means of connecting students after graduation and into further education or entering the labor market.
As Julia Freeland Fisher from the Christiensen institute puts it:
What that conventional wisdom can sometimes ignore, however, is that our weak ties in fact contain unique value too. Unlike our strong ties, sociologists describe our weak ties as the people with whom we interact less frequently. They are more like acquaintances than close friends. But acquaintances can be profoundly valuable assets too. In fact, while studying how people found jobs, Mark Granovetter discovered that job seekers were more likely to find new opportunities and information through their more plentiful and diverse weaker-tie networks than their more dense and smaller strong-tie networks. He famously dubbed this “the strength of weak ties.” Those weak ties could be an important asset that more programs could start brokering for students. And that’s exciting news when you think about how technology can help provide a competitive advantage to learners in developing more social capital. We hypothesize that when it comes to technology, we are unlikely to replace our strongest ties, but there’s an immense opportunity to diversify weak-tie connections in new, highly affordable ways.
Here’s a practical example of this bridging social capital. During the question and answer period Justin asked the crowd how much they thought the movie cost to produce. Responses were generally high but, to my surprise, the cost was only $1500. Mind you he has already accumulated much of the gear used so those costs weren’t factored into that price. The reason why it cost so little was directly related to the strength of Justin’s social capital. Friends, family, and friends of friends hooked him up. They gave him locations to shoot at and cast and crew members for the film. Of the crew, his mother and friend were the main stars. When he looked to the crowd and said, “I couldn’t have done this without your support” he really meant it!
Bridging social capital is what moves us out of lower economic or social classes. Its by these networks that we are introduced to opportunities with means of advancement for our lives. They are the literal building blocks for the bridging of one’s intentions into real life opportunities.
Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40.Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone
Utility social capital
Putnam described the utility of bridging social connections as it relates to parent volunteers of school aged children. The school may bond individuals based on location and life experience, but bridge individuals across economic and political lines. When a parent volunteers at their child’s school their network of connections proportionally increases. They now have relationships, albeit weak or second tier relationships, with other parents. These new relationships may not result in help with moving the deep freeze but they are what opens the doorway to opportunity. For example, at our kids school another mom owns her own milling company where she mills fresh organic flour. Quality food is important for us as a family so we were excited to make this connection. This weak tie has resulted in better sourdough bread on our tables. The taste of bridging capital is so so good!
But the opportunities that bridging social capital provides can also look like helping someone get a job through a friend you know. In fact, Mark Granovetter at Stanford University estimates that 50 percent of all jobs come through personal connections and its acquaintances. It’s the friends of friends who get us hired, strengthening the adage Its not what you know, its who you know.
Without social capital democracy is threatened
Social Capital is what allows for a functioning democracy. As Putnam explains ““People divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.” My concern is that the erosion of this will result in not only less help with moving heavy freezers and less short films being made but ultimately will lead to the fertile breeding ground of terrany. People who do not trust one another tend to live in fear, are antisocial, and have higher rates of anxiety. These people are more willing to let go of personal liberties for a false sense of security from authoritarian leaders.
Dr. Matties Desmet, professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University and over 100 peer reviewed papers, explains in his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism:
Although the Enlightenment tradition arose from man’s optimistic and energetic aspiration to understand and control the world, it has led to the opposite in several respects: namely, the experience of loss of control. Humans have found themselves in a state of solitude, cut off from nature, and existing apart from social structures and connections, feeling powerless due to a deep sense of meaninglessness, living under clouds that are pregnant with an inconceivable, destructive potential, all while psychologically and materially depending on the happy few, whom he does not trust and with whom he cannot identify.
Desmet’s thesis of Mass Formation Psychosis, a phenomena witnessed by the willingness of Nazi Germany to overlook actions of their leaders, is predicated upon the following steps:
- An overall sense of loneliness and lack of social connections and bonds a lack of meaning
- Free-floating anxiety and discontent that arise from loneliness and lack of meaning
- Manifestation of frustration and aggression from anxiety
- An emergence of a consistent narrative from government officials, mass media, etc., that exploits and channels frustration and anxiety.
On the contrary, a strong democracy is built upon a shared sense of trust, cooperation and reciprocity. It’s a “we” mindset rather than a “me” mindset. Putnam found that those communities rich in social capital have less crime, better education for their children, and have a more smoothly functioning local economy. A strong democracy is the result of neighbours mowing each others lawns. It results in more volunteers. It’s when we drop off a meal for those in our networks who are sick. It’s when we recommend a friend to be hired at our uncle’s construction company.
Strengthening social capital
Simply put, you increase your social capital by being… well prosocial. The best way to make friends with your neighbors is to ask them for a favour. Asking for help is an intimate action that builds trust on both ends. Normalizing this vulnerability by asking for help brings the helper into a deeper sense of being seen, valued, and trusted.
We aim to normalize this sense of togetherness and vulnerability by nudging our users to support one another through the power of questions.
Why do you involve your friends as active participants in the goals you set for your life? How have they supported you in the past and why was that meaningful? What value do you see them adding? Without their support how might your journey be different?
How can we scale social capital?
Our goal is to facilitate opportunities that build social capital, both at the individual and societal level. We want to create the environment that empowers friends helping friends. A platform that normalizes vulnerability in an effort to strengthen the relationships we have. It’s through this connected network of empowered individuals where we hope to add the most value and promote the social capital needed for a functioning democracy. By focusing on the individual and working together with the systems and networks in their lives, this is where we see incredible opportunity.
I think back to last night, Justin standing in front of his crowd of friends, family, and friends of friends, and I think to myself, how might his journey have been different if not for all those who have supported him along his journey?
Perhaps our accomplishments are but the sum of our efforts united together with the support of our friends, family and their willingness to inconvenience themselves enough to see us succeed.
Great job on your film Justin, I’m super proud of ya! Wanna help me move a deep freeze?