Do social networking sites improve your ability to network in real life?

Social Capital

To understand how both our online and offline social networks benefit us, it helps to understand the meaning of social capital. We all know what our physical capital is. It's the measure of our belongings and our money -- our stuff. Social capital, on the other hand, is the measure of our connections with others -- our networks.

The main theory of social capital is that social networks are valuable. Having a social network provides you with benefits like trust, cooperation and information. Your social capital, then, is the collective value of the social networks with which you are connected. For example, when your neighbors are out of town, do you keep an eye on their house just to make sure everything's OK? That's social capital -- your network of neighbors looking out for each other. Have you ever gone to an Internet board in search of a support group? That's social capital in action. Your church, your book club, even your favorite neighborhood watering hole all provide you with social capital. You and your network share information, support each other, and may even work together for positive action (fundraising, charity work). Advocates of social capital believe that an abundance of social capital directly correlates with community issues like improved school performance, lower crime rates, better public health and reduced political corruption [source: Putnam].

However, research shows that the social capital of communities has declined considerably over the past few decades. Experts attribute it to urban sprawl. People don't all live in close proximity to each other anymore. They also blame television, busier lives and, sadly, a decline in our overall trust in each other [source: Saguaro Seminar].

Some people may also blame the decline of community social capital on the popularity of the Internet. However, the Internet actually helps to build social capital -- just in different ways. Studies show that the Internet doesn't conflict with people's connection to the community [source: Pew]. The Web actually helps people to maintain active contact within their network because they're not limited to geographically-restricted face-to-face interactions.

You may have 200 Facebook friends, but how many of these people are you actually close to? In the next section, we'll take a look at the different levels of your social network.