Phil Gyford


Friday 30 May 2003

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Last night saw a little gathering at The Wonk Foundation for the launch of their report cunningly linking social capital and social software (see what they’ve done there?). It was mostly fun because afterwards I could chat with friends on a sunny terrace overlooking The Mall while a woman fed us cocktail sausages. There were, of course, the expected “oh please” moments (“Virtual community is an idea whose time has passed”), a lot of blindingly obvious things that people have been saying for years and a few precious moments of sense.

The first of the two low points was Microsoft’s Paul Lidbetter who gave the impression he’d never heard of social software and, after pitching us on Tablet PCs, claimed social software was currently too niche for Microsoft. Hello? Hello? Presumably he was paying for the nibbles. The second big problem was, as ever, some of the audience’s lengthy comments. People who obviously didn’t quite get the concepts of social capital or social software rambling on and doing their best to avoid actually asking a concise question. Maybe these events need a gong

This was the first talk I’d been to since EtCon and given my inability to concentrate on such things I realised how boring talks can be without the distraction of EtCon’s ranks of laptops and Wi-Fi. I desperately wanted to exchange instant messages with friends about what was going on or force myself to concentrate by getting stuck into some collaborative note-taking. Looking at your neighbour’s notepad just isn’t the same.

But the most surprising thing was hearing David Halpern, a Senior Policy Advisor in the government’s Strategy Unit. I’ve been brought up to expect disappointment from men wearing shirts and ties. While TV gives us, say, firm and reasoned police captains or striding and sharp-tongued men of political action the real world is full of blaggers, scrabbling their way up sweaty corporate ladders. But Halpern actually talked sense about social capital, which was nice.


Bah, I completely forgot about that. Mind I wouldn't have been able to come anyway.

So: what did Halpern say? And did you save me any sausages?

Posted by mattw on 30 May 2003, 12:40 pm | Link

*burp* sorry.

I didn't take notes, so from memory... He talked about the history of social capital as a concept; the growing number of articles using the term over the last couple of decades. (He's writing a book on social capital.)

About how things aren't as bad in the UK as 'Bowling Alone' describes in the US -- bad in a different way (don't think he expanded on that). He mentioned something Peter Hall had written on this, which, after Googling, I guess is a 1999 article in the British Journal of Political Science. Hmm.

About how the social capital in different countries has changed over time (improved in Scandinavia, got worse in Anglo Saxon countries).

He (and Will Davies), in response to a question, talked about how good social capital and trust reduces a society's transaction costs (eg, more unofficial processes, less lawyers).

Can't remember much else right now. Anyone?

Posted by Phil Gyford on 30 May 2003, 1:01 pm | Link

Aha. Well in which case I'll recommend this social capital paper by the Cabinet Office (from 2001) which covers the same ground that you describe from Halpern:

(Good summary+critique of Putnam, including the effect of tele; analysis of social capital in the UK; a particularly funny segment on ways to *increase* social capital, like having a button on mobile phones that would cause the 5 nearest landlines to ring...)

For more, see the National Statistics' Social Capital project:

I'm still not sure about 'social capital' as a metric -- it's statistically useful, true, but the underlying metaphors (of capital; of a value that can be attached to a thing) make me uncomfortable.

Posted by mattw on 30 May 2003, 2:34 pm | Link

Glad the sausages were to your liking at least, Phil.

If anyone's interested, this is a pretty similar presentation to the one he gave yesterday... (including the infamous "Three-Dimensional Social Capital Chess" slide half way in).

The comment from David which ought to have been picked up on, by Spiked if by nobody else, was where he said that ICTs might be able to create social capital by connecting 'work-rich' with 'work-poor' households, because the two live side by side in the UK (unlike in US cities). Effectively this translates to: if you need some work, how about cleaning your neighbour's Porsche? Which makes 'on yer bike' look socialist in comparison.

I take the implication that my presentation didn't make any sense, which is a bit annoying for me. Maybe I'll try and elaborate on it when I get a chance or when its less bloody hot.

Posted by Will Davies on 30 May 2003, 2:48 pm | Link

No Will, your presentation made sense but it wasn't new stuff to me so I didn't mention it (likewise with Stef's and James' presentations).

I didn't take that interpretation of the work-rich/work-poor point (which I'd forgotten, thanks). I'm trying to think if there's a more positive angle on it...?

Thanks for the reminder to read that social capital paper Matt; it's in the "to do" pile of stuff salvaged from my UpMyStreet desk :)

Posted by Phil Gyford on 30 May 2003, 2:56 pm | Link

You were on the Mall yesterday afternoon, and yet you weren't at the Crispy Ambulance/Biting Tongues gig at the ICA? I am most disappointed.

Posted by James Wallis on 30 May 2003, 3:04 pm | Link

Incidentally, Tom Schuller was also there yesterday, and his collection on social capital is especially good.. . On Matt's point about the problem of the word 'capital', check out Ben Fine's Marxist critique (in the Schuller collection) of the whole thing.

Posted by Will Davies on 30 May 2003, 3:07 pm | Link

"...the underlying metaphors (of capital; of a value that can be attached to a thing) make me uncomfortable."

Ironically I think that it is quite important that some value does get attached to social capital by government. The only way gov'ts will work to help people get stuff that they need is if they can actually measure in some fashion that it is good. After all there are plenty of things (like building hospitals) that are unarguably good that they could spend money on instead.

P.S. Saw you at the event, Phil, and I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to say "hi". Are you getting taller? ;-)

Posted by David Brake on 31 May 2003, 11:03 am | Link

It was a weird event this one. As ever with these things, I think the term social software - which should be so useful - tends to overwhelm all the things it's supposed to refer to. The guy from Microsoft doesn't realise that his company makes a lot of money out of it already, pretty much everyone else talks about it as if social software means essentially nothing but structured, web-based message-boards (which was strangely reassuring, but also terrible innaccurate).

I didn't think Will's paper was particularly new - and would recommend that people read his actual report instead if they get a chance - although that's not to say that I agree with it. I got extraordinarily irate through a great many of the presentations but as usual was too neurotic to actually say much, and what I *did* say sounded shrill and irritating. What I meant to reaffirm was that:

1) Social Software (as a useful concept to play with) exists independently of Social Capital (as a useful concept to play with). Although whether or not it is possible to act socially without impacting on social capital intrigued me slightly.

2) That Microsoft produces some of the most popular social software in the world. That this has little to do with quality.

3) That social software isn't about individuals *sharing* information, it's about structuring interactions between them. When we build things to structure these interactions we should be able to *help* people produce good things, remain concise, think in the right directions. Things like workflow and ways of controlling human discursive excesses are fundamental to the whole enterprise.

4) That virtual communities (associations with people you meet online based around some kind of interest grouping) have existed for a considerable period of time, exist now and will continue to exist, but that they are no longer the ONLY kind of practical community that CAN exist. They are not dead.

5) That people are a lot less scathing about "social software" than they were about "communities", but that they could still learn a fair amount by seeing what the people who have been building communities have been doing for the last x million years.

And I want to end by being a bit mean to the Microsoft chap even though he seemed totally aimiable, nice and like he was trying to engage with what was going on around him. But when he said, "I bet if I asked you which of us was the guy from Microsoft, you wouldn't choose the one in the tie!" I should reassure him that without exception absolutely every person from the audience I talked to afterwards disagreed...

Posted by Tom Coates on 2 June 2003, 12:56 am | Link

Excellent points Tom, thanks. I must say that, being part-way through 'Bowling Alone', I'm slightly concerned everyone's getting carried away with the "social software can improve social capital" idea when just going out and volunteering somewhere in your neighbourhood would make a bigger difference.

I know, every little helps, and creating a genuinely useful piece of group communication software of some kind could be great. But I can't help thinking we're all just having a big intellectual group wank when we should Just Switch Off Our Computers And Go And Do Something More Useful Instead.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 2 June 2003, 11:16 am | Link

I think there are places where it can help - and one of those is (for example) in the way that UMS Conversations can help - by being a bridge between people who find it incredibly difficult to penetrate that membrane of privacy that sits between people's houses. If it helps people find other people with which to do things in the "real world", then that's awesome.

Actually this makes me think in another direction too - we always talk about social capital at the very local level and in a geographically constricted "meatspace" way. Doesn't virtual community build social capital? Does it have to tie into a piece of physical geography in order to count as building relationships and associations that improve the world in some way?

Example - I was bought a camera for my thirtieth birthday by friends, many of whom I knew online. When my home was burgled, the Barbelith community bought me a new camera between them. In the blindingly stupidly bland "social capital saves people money" equation, then I clearly had a good block of 'knowing people saved me cash' going on there. And most of us have never met one another...

Posted by Tom Coates on 2 June 2003, 12:01 pm | Link

Just to be absolutely clear: I don't at all think that social capital and social software automatically imply one another. But I decided to see how the two could be connected. It may or may not have been a worthwhile exercise. But given the admirable eagerness on the part of software experts to try and understand the dynamics of social networks better, and to build bridges to other intellectual communities, I thought it was legitimate that (as someone who knows this academic territory fairly well) that I make an intervention from the opposite side.

The response has largely been: software experts say "interesting on the social capital, but heard the rest before"; social capital experts say "interesting on the social software, but heard the rest before". Which is exactly as it should be, as the function of the report (and very often the function of think tanks in general) was to attempt to create a hybrid debate.

Not wanting to just parade social capital papers around, but honestly do check out this . Its the best version so far of an integrated sociotechnical argument. But its also 3 years old, and lacks some of the subtleties that recent discussions of social software have achieved. So I wanted to take it forward a bit.

Posted by Will Davies on 3 June 2003, 9:57 am | Link

I started to write a comment, and then it ended up so long I turned it into a blog post instead,

Posted by Tom Steinberg on 3 June 2003, 12:22 pm | Link

Will - I like that this stuff can at least introduce social capital folk to the software possibilities and vice versa. It calms the "stop talking about it, just do it!" part of me a little :)

Posted by Phil Gyford on 3 June 2003, 12:43 pm | Link

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