This week, Christian Yoder and I were in Vancouver to present our note, “Identifying Social Capital in the Facebook Interface” at the CHI 2011 conference. This research was envisioned and led by Christian – it was his undergraduate honors thesis, for which he received highest honors. It was a proud moment to see a student I had mentored presenting research at the premier venue for HCI studies. Christian presented the findings to a packed room – I’d guess about 250 people with an overflow room as well. We were lucky to be slotted with CMU’s Moira Burke, who does amazing work on the relationship between Facebook use and social well-being.
Over the past few years, a number of influential studies have explored the relationship between Facebook use and social outcomes – with no work being more prominent or influential than the body of work constructed by Ellison, Lampe, and Steinfield. Over a number of studies, the MSU team has robustly identified both main and interaction effects in the relationship between Facebook use and social capital. One of the most prominent findings from this work concerns the relationship between Facebook use and bridging social capital – the idea that Facebook effectively brings you closer to your extended group of weak ties.
Building on this work, Christian decided to explore this relationship in more depth – by focusing on the relationship between Facebook interface element use and bridging social capital. Since we know that Facebook use is associated with bridging social capital, we wanted to understand what types of uses are associated with bridging social capital. Christian devised and implemented a survey that measured intensity of use of Facebook wall posts, status updates, direct messages, and chatting, and explored the relationship between these types of uses and social capital. We found that wall posting, in particular, was associated with bridging social capital – which conditionally supported our hypothesis that “third party visible” communication (a unique affordance of SNS) is critical to the production of social capital.
You can read more about the precise details of the study, including the methodology and measurement techniques, by downloading the pre-print or viewing the slideshare of Christian’s talk. A key take away from this research is the importance of publicly visible communication – for all of the criticism Facebook has taken over the way it handles the News Feed, the ability to broadcast to a bounded public proves inherently useful. A secondary take away is the fact our gender control was significant, which indicates that males, who may feel more comfortable disclosing information publicly due to different attitudes about privacy, gain more from public disclosures than females. NB: All limitations apply – self report, study done at one college, etc. We welcome your comments and feedback!
A big thanks goes out to both Jane Brown and Paul Jones, who mentored this work as thesis advisors. The work was supported by a grant from UNC’s Office of Undergraduate Research, and Christian’s travel was made possible by the UNC JOMC Knight Chair. Thank you! Finally, I’m happy to add Christian’s paper to a growing list of my students that have been published. In January, work on social networks and privacy by my undergraduate student Jamila Thompson was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Earlier, Brett Bumgarner’s excellent work on motivations for Facebook use was published in First Monday. I’m very proud of all these students!