How are social networks related to social class? In the simplest question form, do social networks promote social class movement or do they promote the reproduction of social class. Bourdieu, in Forms of Capital (1986) outlines social capital . "Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group." Social networks are a formalized and structuralized way to create and maintain social capital. A second distinction must be added here, that of prestige social capital. Social capital among one group, for example among membership and leadership in a union, does not have the same utility and prestige as social capital among investment bankers. Both forms of capital serve a purpose, and both groups, the union and the bankers, have access to resources that can be used for mutual advantage. However, the aggregate perceived prestige of the social capital of the bankers is higher than the aggregate perceived prestige of the union members and leaders. Further, the types and amount of resources that each social group has is different in important ways.
To reframe the question: Do people use social networking to create more prestige social capital, enhancing their social capital and consequently their social class. Do people use social netowrking to reinforce their existing social capital, reproducing social class? I believe that the answser to both of these questions is yes. Social networking is a Yes, and . . . activity. I am sure that a close and nuanced look at different types of social networking sights will reveal some important differences. After all, Facebook is different than LinkedIn in many ways.
For me Facebook, and now Google+, are ways to keep in touch with my friends and students. I am friends with most of my former students, and have slowly been adding people from my past with whom I had lost touch, and it is a regular part of establishing new relationships. After a trip to campuses in Thailand I added six new friends on facebook.
For me LinkedIn is odd. My social capital needs are met through FB or email. It is interesting to be in LinkedIn but for me does not increase my social capital. However, I continue to get random requests to be added by people who I don't already know. Perhaps this is the point of LinkedIn, and it is lost on me. I am hardly the international man of mystery, and can hardly enhance someone's social capital, so what advantage is there to others in linking up with me. I can only assume that linking with me enhances their social capital.
Seen from this perspective, email has the advantage as a social network tool. I regularly get notes from people I don't yet know. People are often curious, or occasionally contentious, about what I have written, or what they think I have written, and send me an email. I write back, building a relationship, enhancing both of our social connections and potential capital. I will too will occasionally write to someone who I don't yet know asking a question on their writing and if a relationship emerges, this has enhanced both of our social capital.
I cannot help but have a vision of people intentionally using social networks to build their social capital for personal advantage. I know that this reflects my perception of the function of that social networking software, and reflects my lack of desire to be 'collected' for social capital reasons.
Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241-258.