Social Capital, Social Networks, and the Social Web: The Case of Virtual Volunteering

Social Capital, Social Networks, and the Social Web: The Case of Virtual Volunteering

Dhrubodhi Mukherjee (Southern Illinois University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch011
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Social interaction technologies create communicative possibilities that go beyond dyadic interactions and across physical boundaries, bringing a qualitative shift in the functioning of the Internet. The present chapter employs social capital and social networks perspectives to identify the social determinants of virtual volunteering in the age of Web 2.0, explores the social motivation of volunteers who perform tasks using the Social Web in the context of online volunteering, and addresses the dynamic interplay of social capital, social networks, and the Social Web with implications for virtual volunteering. The argument furthered is that active participation in social networks generates social capital and facilitates the development of the Social Web.
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The Social Web or Web 2.0 refers to an aggregation of social interaction and collaboration technologies, including blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networking sites, photo and video sharing services, and simulated 3-D virtual worlds – a phenomenon, which has brought about a qualitative shift in the functioning of the Internet (O’Reilly, 2005). The Social Web has displayed an immense potential to create online social environments (Mikroyannidis, 2007). From a medium for information retrieval and electronic mail exchange, the World Wide Web has grown into a comprehensive platform for social interaction and collaboration with rich communicative possibilities. The Social Web has developed over the recent years through smaller decentralized initiatives worldwide. As such, the Social Web is becoming a platform for the creation of a World Volunteer Web1 where virtual volunteers can communicate and interact with volunteer organizations and volunteer managers to explore and pursue common goals and interests. This evolution has resulted in the formation of new web-based organizations in the U.S., such as the VolunteerMatch2 which aims to help prospective volunteers find suitable volunteer opportunities in their communities.

Virtual or online volunteering is the process of volunteering performed from an offsite or remote location through the use of the Internet (Cravens, 2000, 2006; Ellis & Cravens, 2000; Fussell & Setlock, 2003). Today, many national and international organizations recruit virtual volunteers to perform various tasks (Capeling-Alakija, 2001). United Nations Volunteer Programme, Amnesty International, SeniorNet, and Elder Wisdom Circle are some of the early adopters of virtual volunteering. Created as a virtual volunteering segment under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)3, a UN global development network, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV)4 program has been designed to connect prospective volunteers, primarily from developed countries, with non-profit organizations to assist the low development regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Cravens, 2006). UNV defines online volunteering as “a form of social behaviour, undertaken freely over the Internet, which benefits the community and society at large as well as the volunteer, and which is not driven by financial considerations.”5 The United Nations Volunteers program launched a website6 to facilitate virtual volunteering by supporting collaboration between development organizations and volunteers over the world. In 2000, in association with Cisco Systems the UNV program started a joint initiative called NetAid7 to utilize the power of information technology to combat poverty around the world by raising awareness among young generations (Cravens, 2006).

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam (2000) expressed concerns that Americans are becoming detached from civic activities and community life, resulting in a loss of so-called social capital. According to Putnam, social capital stands for the value—economic, emotional, spiritual, and social—that people generate by engaging in social relationships (1995a, 1995b). Putnam considered social capital as the glue holding communities together with the power of cooperative actions. At the core of Putnam’s proposition is the notion that social capital is dictated by how networks of individuals in a community create conditions where people are inclined to do things for one another. In his seminal work, Bowling Alone, Putnam (2000) argued that social capital in America was declining and that Americans were becoming less engaged in collective and informal interactions, including volunteerism. After attributing several reasons for the decline in social capital, Putnam singled out television for its detrimental influence.

Key Terms in this Chapter

The United Nations Volunteer (UNV) program: Created under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme, UNV encourages people around the world to engage in volunteering activities.

Social Capital: The value (trust, reciprocity, social and emotional support) that is generated from participation in formal and informal social network relationships.

VolunteerMatch: A U.S. national nonprofit organization which maintains a website ( dedicated to help people find volunteer opportunities in their local communities; the database of volunteer opportunities can be searched by location, interest area, or keyword.

Social Network: A social structure made of nodes of individuals and organizations that are tied by specific types of interdependency.

Social Networking Site: An online service that allows users to maintain a personal profile and communicate with others in an interactive media-rich environment.

Social Web: Also known as Web 2.0, the Social Web is an aggregation of social interaction and collaboration technologies, including blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networking, photo and video sharing, and simulated 3-D virtual worlds.

Virtual Volunteering: The process of volunteering performed from an offsite or remote location through the use of the Internet.

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