The potential of social media

So why are social media so interesting for youth work? Of course the fact that youngsters are massively drawn to such platforms as Facebook, Bebo or Netlog means that they present a unique opportunity for youth work organisations to get in touch with their target groups, yet these media have some properties of their own that make them even more interesting. 

A number of theories and studies describe the possible potential of the use of social media with regards to aleviating social exclusion:

  • At the basis of the INCLUSO project lies the hypothesis that social software can be implemented as a medium that supports the generation of social capital. After all, social software is a medium for supporting social interactions between its users and as we have seen, this technology holds the potential for people to both transcend their socio-economical as well as geographical barriers in their interactions with others. In ‘Bowling Alone’, Robert Putnam describes the concept of social capital in detail as he talks about the decline of communitiy involvement in the US. Social capital can be seen as the material and immaterial benefits we receive trough our being a part of a social network. Putnam describes two forms of social capital : bonding and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital, being the benefits we receive by being a part of closely knit networks held together by strong ties, amongst which we find emotional support, financial support and the swift flow of (reduntant) information. Bridging social capital encompasses those benefits we receive from being connected to networks outside of our regular networks, usually through people we don’t know so well.

    R. Putnam, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, 2001 (Amazon)
  • Mark Granovetter elaborates on the notion of bridging social capital by describing the benefits we may gain from the weak ties in our networks, those people with whom we do not share a large similarity and who thus often move around in circles beyond our own. Granovetter states that it is especially through these weak ties that we are most likely to gain access to new and useful information or jobs for example. There is an opportunity here for the INCLUSO project. As we have seen before from the study by Ito et al. and others, users of social software will most likely interact with people they already know in an offline context. If we want to lift youngsters out of their normal ‘neighbourhood’ and into a different ‘online’ neighbourhood, this will have to be stimulated by the organisations working with these youngsters. One possible avenue would be to stimulate these youngsters to participate in interest based communities.

    M. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, 1973, pp. 1380, 1360. (PDF)
    M. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited,” Sociological Theory, vol. 1, 1983, pp. 233, 201. (PDF)
  • Mike Resnick introduces the concept of sociotechnical capital, or making use of social software tools to facilitate social contact between people. Resnick mentions the fact that online interactions can be briefer and more efficient due to the fact that participants do not need to participate at the same time or be present at a certain location, the fact that social software more easily allows for supporting larger groups of people to interact with eachother. Larger groups have more opportunities for information sharing, but it is often difficult to coordinate them in an offline context. Due to recommendation systems or profile searching or even matching, the people with useful information for eachother (or people that may match on other levels) might find eachother more easily.

    P. Resnick, “Beyond Bowling Together: SocioTechnical Capital,” HCI in the New Millenium, Addison-Wesley Professional, 2002, pp. 272, 247 (
  • Wellman and Haase state that the use of internet and social tools in specific supplements the creation of social capital by enabling more efficient communication between individuals and groups. They also state that the fact that people are not interacting in visible public spaces does not mean that they are in isolation. They may be going online to create new online worlds, using instant messaging to chat with old and new friends, visiting online communities, or playing multi-user games. Wellman and Haase also state that not all internet use is the same, and it remains to be seen as to which tools are ideal catalysts for building social capital.

    Haase and Wellman, “How does the Internet Affect Social Capital,” IT and Social Capital, 2002. (PDF)
  • A study by Zhao finds that internet users who make use of social applications online have more social contacts than those who do not make use of social applications. Zhao states that it is the way in which we use the internet, that makes whether it can have a positive impact on our social lives or not.

    S. Zhao, “Do Internet Users Have More Social Ties? A Call for Differentiated Analyses of Internet Use,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 11, 2006, pp. 844-862. (Read)
  • Studies by Kraut et al. and Howard and Massanari underline the important relation between proper skills and guidance on how to use the internet for beneficial purposes and increases in psychological and economical well-being. This underlines the fact that social welfare organisations have a role to play here in teaching youngsters to make use of these applications.

    R. Kraut, S. Kiesler, B. Boneva, J. Cummings, V. Helgeson, and A. Crawford, “Internet Paradox Revisited,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 58, 2002, pp. 74, 49. (PDF)
  • Suler J. describes the online disinhibition effect. Youngsters may feel more at ease to chat or interact with their counselors, due to the fact that they are not face-to-face with them, but at alone home or in a place they feel comfortable. This effect may have a positive influence on how our youngsters interact with the welfare organisations.

    J. Suler, “The online disinhibition effect.,” Cyberpsychology & Behavior, vol. 7, Jun. 2004, pp. 326, 321. (