From “Bowling Alone” to Bowling Online: The Link between Social Media and Social Capital

In 2000, Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in which he chronicled the decline of “social capital” in the United States. Putnam described the decline in the in-person social intercourse that Americans had used to found, educate and enrich the fabric of their social lives. Putnam also discussed the ways in which Americans have disengaged from political involvement including decreased voter turnout, lower public meeting attendance, fewer serving on committees and working with political parties. At the time, these same trends were being noted in Canada and other Western countries.

While Putnam was documenting the decline of social capital, people were already using online social networking sites to share ideas and communicate. In fact, three years earlier in 1997 the first social networking service, Six Degrees was launched.  By 2002 we had Friendster, by 2003 MySpace, LinkedIn and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemash (which would become Facebook) were added to the Internet. In 2004, Flickr changed the photo-sharing landscape and in 2005, the world was introduced to Reddit and YouTube. Twitter arrived in 2006 and its 140 characters have become a major source of breaking political and social commentary.

We hear and read every day about the efforts of corporations, governments and large associations to advance their initiatives via social media but the low cost of entry means those even small towns volunteer fire halls are getting into the social media game.

fire hall

We may not be bowling, voting or attending public meetings in the same numbers we used to but we are engaging, organizing and enriching our society online every day.

Today, over half of Canadians (54%) now visit a social media site (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) every day.

Given the growth in social media, it is not at all surprising that marketers are spending more of their budgets and more of their time trying to get people to follow their brands, visit their sites and, ultimately, buy their products and services.

 25% of Canadians follow brands online

What is somewhat surprising is that we have seen a similar percentage of Canadians turn to social media to find information and communicate about policy, social and political issues.

 26% of Canadians go online everyday to get information or to discuss policy/social/political issues

The growth in the use of social media to engage in political and social issues has largely been organic. It has happened without the dollars and marketing support that corporations have employed to push people to follow their brands and it has happened at a time when (as Putnam noted) political engagement (voter turnout and political party memberships) and social engagement (the rate of  volunteering and charitable donations) have been declining.

If we look at the weekly use of social media to get information about or discuss policy, social and/or political issues, we see more than four in ten Canadians (42%) are online every week participating in these activities and it is young Canadians (those least likely to vote) that lead the way.

Weekly users of social media who get information about or discuss policy/social/political issues peaks among Canadians 18 to 34 years old (56%) and Canadians with a university degree (58%).

The use of social media to stay informed on the day’s events has reached a critical mass with 65% of adult Canadians accessing online sources and social media at least two to three times a month to get information about, or to discuss policy, social and/or political issues.

The people who lead these conversations, the people who are setting the online agenda, form the most interesting group to examine. While sometimes referred to as “citizen journalists” for their reporting on social issues and events, a quick look at blogs and Twitter feeds and it is clear they are in fact a mix of journalists, pundits, amateur policy wonks and activists. Currently, one in ten (11%) Canadians have either started conversations or written original ideas about policy/social/political issues and three in ten (29%) say they have written, commented or shared links with others.

 Cyber Pundits or Cyber Activists?

One in ten (11%) Canadians have started conversations or written original ideas about policy/social/political issues online.

A closer look at the 11% of Canadians who have started conversations or written original ideas about policy/social/political issues shows that they are more likely to be men (14%) than women (8%), be under the age of 34 (18%) and have a university degree (23%).

A closer look at the 29% who are active online as authors, commentators or sharing links to articles about policy/social/political issues shows they are more likely to be Atlantic Canadians (39%), residents of British Columbia (35%) or residents of Ontario (31%).

When it comes to engaging in social and political issues online, income is not a factor. Those households that are earning less than $40K are equally likely to engage online as those earning over $100K in annual household income.

Canadians that are politically and socially engaged online have not abandoned traditional media but they have significantly upped their information flow through online sources.

 If we look at the everyday use of various media we can see that the Canadians who are the most actively engaged online are not abandoning traditional media. Rather they have added to their sources of information and discovered a way to express their views to others using social media. They did not find policy/social/political issue discussions because they were online – they are political junkies, social activists and citizen pundits who have gone online to find more information, engage with others and express themselves.

Everyday use of different media

social media use

Social media has meant that leaders and their organizations are no longer in control of the agenda. The low cost of setting up a website, blogging and tweeting means everyone can have their say and develop a following. With new technology (and the absence of a profit motive) comes the ability to narrowcast and focus on niche issues. Rather than get involved in a political party that has many positions on many issues, people are choosing to get involved and engaged on single issues and with organizations that have single purposes. There are thousands of examples of this online and new ones show up every day. Some have deep pockets and broad constituencies; others, like the Dump the Dump campaign in Russell Village in Eastern Ontario are run on a shoestring by people concerned about a single issue.

The Dump the Dump campaign was launched in November 2010 in response to news of a proposed waste facility north of Russell Village in Eastern Ontario.

dump the dump

With over 800 people on their e-mail list and some 5,000 people who have signed petitions from over a dozen communities, they are using social media to inform and organize with a goal of, “Advocating for the preservation of the quality of the natural environment and to encourage economic development and growth within that constraint, and to marshal informed and effective community involvement in the preservation of the quality of the natural environment”.  Their main goal is to prevent a waste management facility from opening in Eastern Ontario. Twenty years ago they would have lobbied politicians behind closed doors or joined forces with a like-minded political party – today they use social media to inform and organize their constituents and to pressure political parties of all stripes. 

Was Robert Putnam correct?

Well, Putnam was not wrong. Traditional forms of civic engagement were and are in decline. Voting, religious attendance, political party membership and even bowling may continue to drop off, however this does not mean people are less socially engaged. Even had Putnam considered the impact of Six Degrees it is unlikely he would have foreseen the Embrum Fire Department’s Facebook page or the thousands of single issue groups like Dump the Dump.

As researchers we sometimes need to look beyond what we are measuring for answers. If anyone were writing today about the decline in CD and album sales they likely would not ignore iTunes and music piracy and declare that there was less musical engagement in today’s society.

Canadians appear ready and able to increasingly use social media to express and exchange their views and to motivate others to act. How we communicate, engage and relate to one another and how we use social media is in constant evolution. As public opinion researchers, our job is to help our clients understand the impact of these changes on public opinion and behaviours.

The data in this blog post came from a few key questions that we have added to every survey we conduct and we will use these to continue to measure and better understand the convergence of social policy and social media. As we learn more we will report back on our latest findings. In the meantime, feel free to provide an example of your own online engagement efforts in the comments section or connect with me on Twitter @MikeDColledge.