Community Capital

I mentioned in the sharing post that community was built off of social capital. Then I wrote a whole follow-up post on community without ever addressing that hanging thread. Oops.

Here’s where I was going with that. One of the reasons that humans have evolved such ludicrously large brains is that we need to be able to keep track of a greater number of social connections. This is based on the research of Robin Dunbar who discovered a relationship between the size of primate brains and the size of the typical tribe for that primate. Humans have the biggest group size of 150, the so-called Dunbar number. The reason we have big brains is so that we can keep track of our social status and who owes us favors and who doesn’t and who’s hanging out with whom in our tribes. Do I mean to say that we are evolutionary automatons, programmed to share as a means of accumulating social capital that we can later exploit for our own self-interest? Well, no, not entirely. But I think that such evolutionary tendencies do play a role.

And being able to keep score in our heads of things like fairness and our history of interactions with others is part of what has let us decouple ourselves from time and space. I can do you a favor now, and you’ll do me a favor later. We even created money, a way to keep track of this stuff outside of our tribes, so that we can interact with those outside our personal MonkeySphere. Since we have neither a history nor a future of relationships to maintain with outsiders, we use money as a generalized score keeper, as we interact with them via transactional exchanges. Within our tribe, we leverage our social capital; outside the tribe, we use money for that purpose. And it can’t work the other way; using social capital outside our tribe doesn’t work (“you want to pay me off with your sweet personality? No way!”), and using money within our tribe is considered crass. If you have to pay off your friends, it’s questionable that they’re your friends.

In some sense, community is just a word to describe the phenomenon when interactions are dense enough among a group of people that they move beyond transactional experiences towards using social capital. Social capital tends to fade with time, just as our memories do, so it must be used or lost. A group that meets only once a year is going to have difficulty maintaining social capital due to the paucity of interaction compared to a group that meets weekly. And this is the direction I was going when I commented that community was built off of social capital; in some sense, there is no community without social capital.

So in addition to all of the things I mentioned about community before, there has to be regular meetings. It works best when there are a variety of interconnections among the participants so as to foster the need for social capital. If the connections between community participants are sparse (e.g. everybody is linked to one central figure, but not to each other) then the community is fragile (if the central figure leaves, the community disintegrates). If connections are manifold, the network can survive more damage (much like the Internet). This is starting to remind me of network theory and the Six Degrees book.

I think there’s a powerful idea lurking somewhere in here, even if I haven’t been able to express it well yet. It’s this idea that we treat one-off interactions (transactional experiences) very differently than we treat continuing interactions (communities). Social capital and networks are only relevant if there will be future interactions; otherwise, there’s no incentive not to be completely selfish. I wonder if the direction I’m trying to go is that building recurring communities is the way to overcome our selfish tendencies – I’ve played with this idea before but it might be time to think about it some more.

P.S. Jofish deserves props for starting me thinking along these lines when we had a conversation last year about the possibility of converting social capital into economic capital and vice versa. I really like the social capital concept, even if I can’t figure out what to do with it yet.

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