The opportunity for social capital and mutual aid to define how we emerge from this crisis


Today was the first episode of my new live-streaming show, The Virtual Excellence Show (which I haven’t even had time to announce on this blog yet, but if you’d like to follow it please subscribe here!).

My guest on the first show was the amazing and colorful Howard Rheingold. When I considered who should be my first guest on the show, Howard was the obvious choice, having been a pioneer in all things virtual for decades, in among other landmarks publishing the book Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier in 1994.

You can see the relevant part of conversation in the show below.

One of our topics of conversation was social capital. Howard recently wrote an extensive and insightful post Mutual Aid & Social Capital: The Power of Communities, Networks, in which he writes:

At the time of this writing, the entire world’s population is in a state of crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of rapid and coherent action from the highest levels of official governance, and in coordination with official responders, citizens have organized to help each other in their neighborhoods, communities (physical and virtual), and municipalities. This spontaneous, self-organized reaction is sometimes called mutual aid, and the capacity for people to enlist their peers in mutual aid without formal institutions such as laws and contracts is sometimes called social capital.

Neither mutual aid nor social capital are new. They go back before history — and have a lot to do with the world that humans have uniquely altered and created. But because networks of relationships, sharing of lore, and norms of reciprocity can be cultivated through and amplified by communication networks, spontaneously organized mutual aid takes on new powers in the era of smartphones and social media.

In his excellent post Howard also offers a long list of concrete examples of mutual aid during the pandemic, describes how he early on experienced social capital in The Well, the world’s seminal virtual community, and shares resources on social capital on the Stanford course he taught on Social Media Issues.

As Howard says, mutual aid has been heightened in the pandemic, especially at the local level, and we have seen the power of social capital amply demonstrated, for example in the public response to the bravery and commitment of front-line health workers.

Most people indeed feel that ‘we are in this together’ and are acting accordingly.

This crisis is a massive opportunity to reshape social structure to one based more on the ‘diffuse reciprocity’ that Howard mentions in our conversation, where people give without direct expectation of return, yet collectively communities support each other.

The intense challenges we are experiencing can help us reshape the idea of community in our new world of connectivity and interdependence.

Urbanization and what we could describe as the perversion of the original concepts underlying social media have contributed to many experiencing a pulling apart of the sense of community over the last couple of decades.

It may turn out that this crisis helps us to build a new sense and practice of community that is relevant to today’s world, founded on mutual aid and the consistent building of social capital that enables that.

That is an extraordinary opportunity.