Social Capital and Friend 2.0

November 24, 2009sparxoo_admin

By Ethan Lyon, Senior Writer

What is the meaning of a friend in the digital space? Does the definition of a friend change from one social network to another? Is a friend on Facebook any different than a MySpace friend? The value of user connections vary from one social network to another, which ultimately impacts social capital building strategies.

Let’s first examine the differences between two similar social networks. In the past year, there has been enormous growth in Facebook, whereas MySpace has fallen flat. In December of 2008, Facebook and MySpace were toe-to-toe with 59 million users, according to Compete.com. As of July 2009, MySpace had 59 million users, while Facebook more than doubled theirs, totaling 123 million users. What led to this tremendous growth?

What is the fundamental difference between the two networks–leading one to success and the other to stagnate? We believe it has to do with the value of social capital. Social capital is the connection with and between on and offline networks. We posit that an emphasis on social capital has given rise to Facebook and the value of an online friend has increased many-fold.

Facebook tears down many of the structures that defined MySpace in an effort to create meaningful social connections. Facebook is rooted in a philosophy that promotes real relationships with real people. To begin, Facebook was a gated community for college students only, while MySpace was a free-for-all. The only way to gain access to Facebook was through a .edu e-mail account. Furthermore, no pseudonyms were allowed. Real people, real profiles, which translated into real friend networks. Facebook then made a concerted effort to connect those that share similar networks (via friend recommendations).

This emphasis on close-knit communities takes center stage, while MySpace’s prominent friend and comment count made time on the site a race to see who could collect the most friends and comments. Facebook scraped its comment (i.e. wall count) number and doesn’t emphasize friend count. Also, users do not have the option to customize their page with HTML code. It brings a professional and cohesive element that does not exist in MySpace.

The meteoric rise in Facebook’s popularity and the plateau of MySpaces’ reflects the change in social attitudes on the web. Users are in search of a platform that is not masked with HTML code and pseudonyms. In essence, Facebook users desire real, meaningful connections. Yes, you can “befriend” everyone from your graduating class; there is an incentive is to reconnect. However,  the MySpace culture promotes friending anyone and everyone. Befriending everyone in Buffalo, NY to promote your band is much different than creating a fan page and asking people in your network to become fans.

Strong social capital is born from meaningful relationships. The rise in Facebook users leads us to believe there is a need to build tight-knit communities. Knowing and reconnecting with those in your network takes center stage on Facebook, whereas MySpace does quite the opposite. As we try to define what it means to have “friends,” we’re learning a friend is not just a number; they are our 8th grade best friend, or our classmate we studied with in London. No longer is the number of friends a badge of popularity. As we seek meaning in our networks, a friend is someone we have a history with, whom we can reach out to.

Image by Bartek Ambrozik from Stock.Xchng