Social Capital and Social Networking

Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay
Creative Commons License photo: *L*u*z*a*

There is some fascinating research from Michigan State University about the use of online social networking sites by college students and the effect on their social capital. For non-economists, social capital is one of the three types of capital or “wealth”. The other two types are physical capital (what you own e.g. a computer, machines, money) and human capital (skills, experience). The third type of capital is your social connections – or social capital.

The study found that Facebook allows people to keep in contact with communities more efficiently, hence increasing their social capital. The authors of the study wrote, “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.” In addition, there was a correlation between Facebook usage and psychological well-being.

Of course, Facebook started off as a social networking site for college students only. Hence, it encouraged people to develop their relationships with people within their local college communities and people who they know offline which is more useful social capital than that which would be gained through forums and sites such as Digg.

Creative Commons License photo: Kate_A

The study goes on to look at two different types of social capital: bonding (cementing networks of homogenous groups of people) and bridging (social networks of socially heterogeneous groups of people). The argument is that some types of social capital are bad: criminal gangs, racist and extremist groups have high levels of bonding capital. The study found that Facebook tends to generate the good type of social capital: bridging.

Perhaps my criticism of the study is how it can be shown that Facebook causes an increase in social capital. To me, it seems pretty likely also that people with greater social capital will be more likely to sign up to Facebook.

But it’s certainly an interesting study. There certainly hasn’t been much study in the general area but I think it’s an area which needs studying: just as the web allowed us to enhance our human capital by learning more about different kinds of things, the social web will allow us to enhance social capital.

The “social web” may have drastic implications for our society and economy.

June 2008

It’s been another really enjoyable month to be maintaining Cow’s Blog. Again, I feel like I’ve really learnt many worthwhile things and read some comments which really challenged my views. So thank you for all participating and I hope you’ve read something here which has peaked your interest or made you look at something in a different way!

A particular thank you to the major commenters this month: Ramble, Carl M, ghassan, Lewis, ciju, Tim, felicity, James Baker.

My personal favourite posts from June include:

As usual, I’m always looking for feedback and thoughts on the blog. One avenue I will be giving thought to is a new name for the blog in the next few weeks; it doesn’t really mean anything and “Cow’s Blog” hardly conveys the right message!

June was a really busy month for me with examinations at college; now it’s all over I’m going to get a breath of fresh air and to do something different! The blog might be slightly quieter over the next few weeks!

McAfee Security Centre Spam

Let me ask you: would you buy security software (which protects you from spam) from this company?

That’s a grand total of 20 spam e-mails reminding me to renew my McAfee subscription, with the first in September of last year. 9 months later, I’m still recieving them at what seems to be an increasing rate. You can also see that “last chance to renew” and “offers end soon” don’t mean that.

For the curious, I uninstalled McAfee after a single day of having it on my system.

Computers and Climate Change

Earth Egg
Creative Commons License photo: azrainman

Computing equipment (PCs, computer equipment and data centres) were responsible for 830 million tonnes of CO2 in 2007. That’s 2% of all human CO2 emissions putting IT on a par with aviation. By 2020, many expect IT emissions to increase to 1.4 billion tonnes, with most of that due to corporate data centres.

Sounds bad, right? Not so. An article in the Economist this week discusses the enabling effect of IT.

A study found that by 2020, IT would reduce CO2 emissions in other industries by 7.8 billion tonnes and hence contribute to tackling climate change rather than helping it along. For example, IT enables video conferencing which has a low CO2 footprint compared to air travel which it may replace. Computers can also be used to improve efficiency in all kinds of ways: for example planning a quicker and shorter route for a delivery driver. Obviously that leads to a drop in CO2 emissions in transport.

It’s certainly an interesting article which is worth checking out but I suppose we can live with the knowledge that computers aren’t part of the problem, they are part of the solution.

Proof of Concept: Using Facebook as Identity on a Blog

Please accept my apologies for the third successive post about Facebook!

I wanted to show off a proof of concept I’ve developed of using Facebook as an identity system for your blog. The proof of concept doesn’t run on a real blog system – that is simply to keep it simple and because I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with the ins and outs of WordPress. I can see no reason why it couldn’t be adapted to integrate with WordPress/Drupal or whatever.

How does it work?

  • You’re on the blog page and you wish to make a comment.
  • You click on a link which takes you to the Facebook webpage.
  • If you haven’t before used your Facebook identity on this application before, you’ll be asked to give permission for it to access your personal information.
  • You are returned to the blog page, now logged in with your facebook identity.

Total development time was about 1 hour, took about 50 lines of code. If anybody is interested, I can open source the PHP source code.

As far as I can see, it follows the platform terms of use. The only information which my proof of concept has access to is your name and the URL of your Facebook avatar. This information is not stored except with your expressed consent (e.g. you post a comment).

Pop over to the proof of concept and feel free to login or to post a comment to try it out.

School Alumni Facebook Experiment Results

Halls Of Horror
Creative Commons License photo: DownTown Pictures

On Sunday I introduced my experiment with building a community through Facebook for a school alumni group. I’m pleased to be able to say that the Facebook application was complete yesterday and I can now discuss some of the results.

First of all, a little about the target audience. We are looking at sixth form college students in Britain (between 18-19 years old). In grand total, there are 200 students in total and that’s the total number of people we are aiming at. I would estimate that about 25% of the target audience doesn’t use the internet on a regular basis so the target figure of course is about 150.

We’ve had two attempts at creating a community around the school alumni group.

Attempt 1: Drupal

The first attempt involved using the open source Drupal CMS. The community featured forums, latest news and so on. The community was advertised primarily through real world posters and presentations. There was also a small campaign online to promote it via e-mail.

After one year, we managed about 50 registrations (33% of the target) of which about 5 are active. This means the community is actively used by about 4% of the target audience. In total, about 30 messages were received on the forums in the one year the community has been active.

I believe the main barrier to the success of this online community is the difficulty in creating an account. You need to set up yet another username, password and validate your e-mail address. That means people have to go to a lot of effort to join the community and the lack of active members in the community also limits the usefulness (more on this later).

Attempt 2: Facebook

This is the new alumni community which I launched yesterday lunchtime. The community has various features which are similar to the first attempt. The community again was promoted through real world posters and presentations, as well as online via email and messaging. This time, viral marketing also took place through various Facebook channels.

After just 24 hours, the community reached 75 users. That means we’re already half way towards the target of 150. Are people engaging with the application? We received 30 messages in just one day. According to Facebook statistics we received 1,100 page views in just the first 12 hours. For me, that’s astonishing growth – through a Facebook application we achieved the same results in under a day as it took a year to achieve on an external Drupal-based website.

From my perspective, the amount of work that it took to promote the Facebook application was much less than that of the external community.


Bright Atlanta
Creative Commons License photo: Nrbelex

A sceptic will point out that this is an unfair test because the two communities were obviously different in their designs and feature sets. I will say that when it came to launching the second community, I was much more experienced at creating and designing online communities so I was able to create a much more engaging community. But it is the fact that we opted for a Facebook application which allowed us to develop these engaging features. Many features have a critical mass of users below which it would not be useful.

The growth of community is proportional to its size. The constant of growth (k) depends on various factors:

  • The proportion of users who are active in the community
  • The proportion of users who engage in the community
  • The proportion of users who will let their friends know about the community
  • The conversion rate (invites to registrations)

I would say that Facebook applications have a much higher growth constant than other communities, for several reasons:

  • Easy to access; no additional URL, username, password to remember
  • There are additional communication channels through Facebook
  • It is much easier to build engaging community features through Facebook
  • Facebook has an invite system for users to share their favourite apps
  • Users already have Facebook accounts meaning the “barriers to registering” are almost zero: all they have to do is to tick a box granting an application access to their personal data.

Of course, it depends on the demographic of your userbase. This experiment was run with British teenagers, many of which have Facebook. Across other demographics, I believe implementing OpenSocial or OpenID could lead to similar benefits for online communities.

I’m very pleased with the results of this experiment and I would say it has confirmed some of the suspicions I had when I wrote my previous post. Of course, it’s something you can rip apart but I believe it’s well worth a think when you come to create your next online community!

An Experiment Building Communities in Facebook

Way to the future right now
Creative Commons License photo: ionushi

In the old days, I used to be a big fan of forums. By forums I mean the ones which are attached to a website and run on vBulletin, phpBB or something. They were great places to meet people and to keep in touch with your friends. Forums, for me, served two purposes: the social aspect and the information aspect – gossip and opinions.

Almost every webmaster in the world wanted a forum on their website and I remember all kinds of free BBS hosting websites around such as MyIkonBoard, ProBoards. Of course, those same webmasters would then create about 20 or 30 forums and never receive a single post.

A couple of years ago, blogs took off on the internet. For me, blogs replaced forums as a source of information. I used to subscribe to over 100 RSS feeds on a whole range of topics which supplanted forums as the primary source of gossip. I find blogs tend to be better researched and better sources of information.

One downside of blogs was that they never had the communities which would build up around forums (there are exceptions; sites such as Digg and Slashdot seem to have pretty active communities). So whilst blogs supplanted the whole “information gathering” aspect of forums, they never replaced the community aspect.

A previous experiment of mine was Geneone, a PHP “community management system” which tried to blend blogs, forums and webpages into one community. The reason why I built it was because at the time, the major blog, forum and content management systems wouldn’t work together. For me, integration shouldn’t be an afterthought: it should be built into the very pillars of the software.

| apple-command |
Creative Commons License photo: arquera

We released several betas of Geneone and ran the software at for quite a while (and it’s still used on some parts of the site). Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from ever producing a release-ready version of the software and anyways, Drupal did a fairly good job.

In the mean time, over the last few years social networking websites have really taken off. I’m a huge fan of Facebook. I’ve worked with the Facebook Platform a little over the past few months and I still think it’s a vast goldmine of untapped opportunity. Recently open sourced, I believe the Facebook Platform is going to be the catalyst and the glue between “social web” or “Web 2.0” applications. There is so much potential in the social web which we haven’t seen. The 90s belonged to Microsoft, the 00s (naughties?) belonged to Google. I believe the next decade will belong to Facebook.

The infrastructure which would allow anybody to integrate Facebook into their web applications today already exists and I guess I’m kind of surprised that nobody has done it yet.

I’ve recently begun an experiment to build a “mini social network” inside of Facebook. Essentially, we want to build a social network around our school alumni to share messages and photos. In the old days, we would have used a message forum to do this. What I’m trying to do is to replace the humble message forum with a Facebook Application.

The advantages of this are numerous:

  • Almost every young person in Britain already has a Facebook account so there are no worries about getting people to sign up. As soon as somebody adds your application on Facebook, you have access to their (real) name, photo and various other personal information from their profile.
  • Young people regularly use Facebook. This makes Facebook a “passive” communication tool rather than an “active” one. With standalone websites and forum sites, people have to make a proactive effort to regularly check them. A more extreme example would be the telephone: you must make a phone call to hear the latest gossip. With Facebook, it’s delivered to you and it requires no effort on your own part – this makes it “passive”.
  • The Facebook Platform saves a lot of time. In the course of developing a standard PHP application, you must write routines to manage accounts, login states, PM systems, templating, email validation and more. Facebook does pretty much all of that for you.
  • The application can integrate with various channels which promote it virally. For example, when a user adds your application, friends may find out about it on their news feeds.

Look Up
Creative Commons License photo: mrhayata

Facebook already provides a “Groups” feature which could serve as a very simple social network. But to be frank, the Groups feature sucks. It’s “active” because you need to make a proactive effort to check the group regularly; there is no way to organise photos; the message board lacks in functionality and there is no way to have any privacy.

Anyway, that’s what I’m experimenting with at the moment. It remains to see how successful it’ll be.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it’ll be long until somebody manages to get phpBB working inside of Facebook. It shouldn’t take more than a little code to integrate with Facebook’s user system. And I think we’ll be seeing use of the Facebook Platform within the next generation of social web applications and websites.

Watch this space!

Hierarchy and Leadership in Society

Water Melody
Creative Commons License photo: steve_steady64

I saw a really interesting use of game theory in last week’s New Scientist about the origin of leadership and I wanted to share it here.

Regular readers will know that I’ve written about game theory many times in the past: I find game theory to be a very elegant way of modelling human behaviour with many applications in economics and the social sciences.

This piece of game theory concerns the question of why hierarchy exists in society. Why do we have leaders? Imagine the following scenario. Let us imagine two people, Persons A and B, who both need to hunt in order to eat. They can choose from one of two forests to hunt in, but they must travel together for their protection.

Person A is familiar with Forest 1 as it is where he typically hunts. Person B is familiar with Forest 2: that is where he usually hunts.

Which forest will they choose to go to? Obviously each person will prefer to go to the forest that they are most familiar with and to hunt there: by doing this they maximise their own success (the “number of kills” and the amount of food they can bring back). The following diagram shows the payoffs:


9th open Archeon Longbow shoot
Creative Commons License photo: hans s

Person A knows all the ins and outs of Forest 1, so he’s an efficient operator. In Forest 1, Person A gets 3 “kills” but Person B gets 1 “kill” as he doesn’t know it at all.

If they both decided to travel to Forest 2, the opposite is true. Person B gets 3 “kills” as he knows the forest well, Person A only gets 1.

If Person A and Person B couldn’t agree on which forest to travel to, neither of them would bring back any food, let alone reach a forest, because they can’t travel unless they travel together for protection.

In the scenario, what would happen? Well, Person A would choose to travel to Forest 1, the forest he knows the most well. If he chooses Forest 1, he has possible payoffs of either 3 kills or no kills. If he chose to travel to Forest 2, he has the possibility of no kills or 1 kill. Conversely as the payoffs are opposite for Person B, he will choose to travel to Forest 2, his favoured forest.

The end result is that both people will attempt to travel to their own favoured forest and neither of them would have any food to eat.

Desert Leader
Creative Commons License photo: Hamed Saber

For society, the best solution is that both people work together to agree where they want to hunt (this way society as a whole gains food from 4 “kills”). However, for this to happen, one person must take a lead but someone else must agree to follow: somebody must accept a smaller payoff and a smaller amount of food than which he would have had if he was leader.

This illustrates the importance of hierarchy and leadership in society: without somebody taking the lead to make a decision and other people following, society would not function. Society needs a leader and a follower.

Natural selection might be expected to select the leaders. After all, they are more successful at hunting and perform better. But natural selection at the group level would favour groups which worked well together (as the game theory diagram shows, groups which have a leader and follower are more successful as a whole).

THINK! Driving Challenge

I received an e-mail from the team at AMV BBDO about the THINK! Driving Challenge which I wanted to share with all of you.

It is a website which demonstrates just how difficult it is to talk on the mobile phone whilst driving: an issue which is quite close to my heart. Last year I was crossing at a crossroads: opposite was a stationary car. The driver was obviously distracted for some reason and moved off harshly whilst we were crossing. Thankfully she stopped the car a few inches before she knocked us out.

Anyway, give it a go before you proceed any further down the post so it’s not spoilt for you!

DfT Driving Challenge

Nicola Davies writes:

Just over a year on from the introduction of the tough new penalty of three penalty points and a £60 fine for using a mobile phone whilst driving, the Driving Challenge directly builds upon a film made by the University of Illinois 10 years ago which demonstrates the psychological principle of ‘inattentional blindness’.

I wrote about a gorilla/basketball video several years ago which demonstrated this inattentional blindness.


Client: Department for Transport
Agency: AMV BBDO
Creative: Gary Hoff, Stuart Woodall, Sean Vrabel
Account Management: Kate Gault, Giovanna Cucchi, Olivia Browne
Digital Producer: Nicola Davies
Web Production: iCG
Film Production: Brick and Pin
Director: Richard Topping
Exposure: Online