Trying to value “social capital”…

Last month, Lloyd Davis gave two performances at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, telling stories from his recent trip – sorry, social art project to the States, “Please Look After this Englishman”.

Today, he set off on his next project: an unplanned, working journey around the UK, led by the contacts, leads and ideas generated from social media.

Lloyd’s performance was very enjoyable – he is a good storyteller – and thought-provoking. I meant to write about it, but my own social art project – sorry, trip up north got in the way, and I didn’t get around to it. Until now.

Lloyd Davis, telling tales

I won’t tell my own versions of Lloyd’s tales – you’ll have to see him for those – but some of issues he raised. Lloyd travelled from San Francisco to New York, guided by his social media contacts (with the proviso that he needed to stop off at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas). His contacts prompted his route, where and with whom he stayed, and even how (and by whom) he was entertained. We are clearly a perverse bunch: he was directed north from San Francisco to Seattle, west to Wisconsin and then south to Austin, before heading back north to Maine and finally New York. Not the most direct route – although that wasn’t really the point of the project.

Redrawing the map of the USA

His contacts – largely his online friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends – became his safety network. (It would be interesting to know how many degrees of separation this network extended, but of course anyone can become a one-degree of separation friend online with the click of a mouse.) They put him in touch with people and places, and occasionally the net broke: he found the extent of his network when it was overstretched and vague contacts wondered who the hell this guy was and what he wanted.

It seems to me that this was an exercise in realising “social capital” (a phrase Lloyd used, too) – but also it made me think what a bad term social capital is. It is of course a metaphor, a way of conceptualising the value of a social network as one might value the capital built up by an enterprise.

But a balance sheet or bank account isn’t the right model for this concept. Social capital is not spent: indeed, using social capital – as Lloyd did, by meeting and conversing with his many connections – actually creates more social capital, rather than depleting it. The highly intangible – and possibly volatile – nature of social capital mean it isn’t something that we can consciously build a stock of.

It is clearly something that is created through social interaction and social acts. Sharing something on Twitter, writing a blog post (perhaps even this…), meeting new people, introducing others – all these things (and more!) can create value within a network.

It isn’t a zero sum game – there isn’t a finite amount in an account in which we can measure the rise or fall as a result of our actions. Or inaction – I am sure that my social capital decreases when I have quiet periods on twitter or fail to post to this blog for a month or so (an all too frequent occurrence). It isn’t static.

I’m not sure where this gets us, aside from a belief that borrowing the metaphor from a financial concept is less than helpful. Is there a better term that more adequately explains the ephemeral nature of social capital? I’m not sure that I can think of one – at least, not yet.

(You can follow Lloyd’s progress around Britain on Twitter, @LloydDavis.)

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