Emerging Social Capital of Virtual Africa
“Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable” (The World Bank 1999):
Social cohesion in virtual worlds and online communities are no different from those in the communities that we serve in Africa, and certainly no less essential to sustainability. We discovered just how true this is for our own project the past two weeks, and are still surprised at how a renewed community participation ignited without much (or any) of our own prompting, and the social cohesion of our small global community showed its face: Within days, open communication led to several loosely connected initiatives that caused an unexpected and collective energy – preventing our region from being shut down on Friday 11 December 2009. This would have been the sad but reasonable outcome after our third notice from Linden Lab – due to our organisation, Uthango Social Investments not being able to raise enough funds for tier fees during 2009:
Unfortunately, if you can not get the islands funded by Friday, 11dec09, you will need to remove the content that you wish to keep so that we can take down the islands…. We wish you success in future Secondlife endeavors and hope to see you back again, thank you for your work, time and effort. (Ticket #4051-7106595)
I felt like giving up, but a stern Skype call put me and self-pity in its place – ‘get on with it’. Now OF COURSE it is embarrassing at a professional and even an organisational level to admit an inability to raise the necessary finance for Linden Lab land tier fees. And no, we have not asked for special treatment because we are African – most NGOs globally are having a tough time with fundraising and we are all in the same boat. And it would be irresponsible and short sighted to utilise funds from one project (read donor) to subsidise another.
Holding out hands to raise virtual currency inSL has also never been our main objective or activity inSL and certainly are not the strengths of the founders of Virtual Africa in Second Life. But community building and social cohesion call on transparency and collaboration and not on private organisational ego, and in the words of a wise supporter: “if others believe in your idea and want you to succeed, you will know it now, if ever…“:
The comments after final notice to the community and tenants to remove their content from our African MarketPlace and campsites came in fast and concerned (resulting in daily IM caps): “We did not know. We did not see how serious it was in the notecards. You are too subtle and diplomatic. Nooooooo, do not get rid of the open spaces! We did not know about the bandwidth problems. I did not realise what was happening and so quickly. You need to tell us stuff. We cannot believe it”, and then the numerous encouraging IMs, basically all with the same message, “we should not let this happen or we must DO something”: And so, they did:
Social Cohesion. Kindness. Good-will. Sympathy. Call it by any name, it is still sweet and empowering: Two community builders and landowners offered to organise a benefit each. Another came back after two years to volunteer full-time inSL. A PHP coder headed our call for a special donation script and then waivered the fees. Some people donated directly to Wilberforce Rau (our record keeping avatar) and some tenants suggested we rezz a poster and tracker that could show the outstanding fees for the year, and did so at the Rangers’ Hut at Virtual Africa inSL (calculated at 885 USD for each full sim and 399 USD for each homestead), or 2568 USD for a period of six (6) months for the entire region of four sims – just about 705 000 Linden Dollars or 20 000 ZAR every six months, excluding connectivity, human resources and bandwidth costs (which is about four-times that amount). It remains more costly from Africa than from any other place on earth to be in a virtual world, resulting in less than 0.5% of a billion people accessing virtual technologies.
Virtual Africa has been around since early 2008 in Second Life. It was launched after nine months of quiet research in terms of approach, and since then the region had just more than 40 000 visitors interested in our bit of 3D Africa. Most avatars are interesting people that come in and out for the odd balloon ride, or romantic walk-about and leave for greener pastures. However, some stay a bit longer and become as inspired as we are with the project and vision of bringing African content to virtual worlds, and construct their own bit of Africa as part of an ever-increasing network. They also see the potential of sharing conversations, good practices and ideas from/with people from the continent via this platform. And in the process, Uthango inSL nurtured some social capital that we have not recognised or fully appreciated – that is, until the 10th of December 2009 when the hover text at one poster inSL (beneath) showed how donations ticked over into 70% of our 2009 fees (to date) and Linden Lab could be paid in-part. THANK YOU! We are almost there, …
“Social capital is defined by Robert D. Putnam as “the collective value of all social networks (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other (norms of reciprocity)”.
The idea and concept of ‘social capital‘ has been strongly introduced to academic circles in early 2000 and was adopted by the World Bank as an useful organising term for stakeholder influence on development. To bend all things of societal value to economic terminology like ‘capital’ is problematic in its own sense, but more about that another time. About the same time as when the term was being debated globally; in South Africa in 2001, the now leaders of our own development company (Uthango Social Investments) were building and embracing social capital practically as the engine of our development work in communities via the Uthango Micro-Enterprise project described here by Harvard University and linked to marginalised and very poor urban areas. Uthango designed a participative engagement instrument, called iPekx (Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge Exchange) and linked the information directly to economic and societal development programmes – resulting in an award-winning approach to sustainable development.
We now analysed what exactly happened and realised that our online community (especially in Second Life) is stronger in social capital than we realised and that – when informed openly about our reality – the community of affected people demonstrated both collective social cohesion and individual good-will leading to renewed community participation in our project. As a community in virtual worlds with an affinity for Africa we recognised we are facing collective challenges, expressing aspirations and values, as well as sharing the same space and having equal opportunities that result in a ‘sense of togetherness’ (a glue) – the fabric of healthy communities.
As a development agency based in South Africa, that emerged from a local development project, the Uthango’s team intimately knows and understands the value of open conversation and social cohesion as enabler for change and creating healthy communities. There is no substitute for spending time with clients in pro-poor projects and building trust via listening and fostering long-term mutually beneficial relationships.
So Social Capital is NOT tangible, but it is woven into the fabric of life itself; into the interaction we have with each other on many platforms, and recognisable in communities in all its forms:
Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.
There is definitely scope to connect some ‘isolated individuals’ and smaller communities into a loop and strenghten our network. This will become more possible when we require the resources to spend more time in our virtual world’s projects, and build on educational, enterprise and entertainment initiatives.
In my opinion, building social capital is closely linked to developing appropriate technologies furthering social cohesion and socio-political eco-systems that in turn enable citizens to access these technologies. Maybe a technosocial approach to development, then? It is, afterall, already in the DESIGN of technology that social capital could be called upon on raised (or even deliberately and short-sighted excluded). This point is made strongly by Richard Sclove in his book, “Democracy and Technology’ so well reviewed and commented upon by John Carter McKnight (Kaseido Quandry in Second Life) in his latest blog entry: 10 Big Pieces: Sclove, Democracy and Technology and although there are elements in the quoted book that one could strongly argue against, this one stood out as true in our experience:
“Competent citizenship, moral development, self-esteem, and cultural maintenance all depend on extensive opportunities… to participate in producing, contesting, disseminating, and critically appropriating social knowledge, norms and cultural meaning.”
So, what exactly is SOCIAL CAPITAL?
And why do we believe that our project in Second Life (R) is showing promising signs of growth – inviting us to remain a bit longer – even though it has not reached a break-even point financially? Simply because we place a value on social networks for our development and advocacy agenda, and not merely look at monetary Return on Investment. Nothing else than ‘Social Equity’ or ‘Social Capital’:
The very first definition that jumps from Google is also the one I like best: ‘social capital’ referred simply to “‘those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people’ according to Lyda Judson Hanifan in 1916. He was particularly concerned with the important place of good will, fellowship and sympathy that make up a social unit and contribute to a meaningful life. Significantly almost a 100 years later, a study published by Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, suggests that human beings are genetically ‘wired’ to be good and he (too) places KINDNESS towards others central as prerequisite for a meaningful and successful life. The corresponding article, “Forget Survival of the Fittest: It is Kindness that Counts” suggests that giving and gratitude relate to lasting wellness and a better society. If the impromptu exchange of KINDNESS is an indicator of the existance of social capital, then Virtual Africa inSL has growing social capital based on our experience of kindness.
The concept of social capital implies that face-to-face encounters and shared experiences are needed to build trust and community. Ages ago a ‘community’ with social capital would be defined around the physical place where people live – a village or hamlet, where they share daily life. Nowadays the definition is much broader and rather refers to the space (even virtual) where people have a sense of belonging. Or is it a matter of virtual places that provide the same medieval sense of being present in the same place to grow and participate as community?
This has been a testing year for Uthango, and our focus has NOT been in Second Life. Yet, our fragile community continued without regular group engagement and ‘in-world events’ and demonstrated social cohesion when it mattered most for our Virtual Africa. Imagine what is possible if we have the equal opportunity and connectivity to be more active in a fair trade environment … The reality is that we have discovered that Virtual Africa inSL and Uthango inSL have social capital in its community that is an invaluable outcome of a three-year systematic investment to the best of our abilities and capacities. We do not have the funds for the next round of land tier and direct costs in 2010, but we DO HAVE a renewed faith that it is possible. And OH! how we thank you for your part in our journey to this discovery… we will not forget you…
With reference to beautiful poem and South African-themed movie INVICTUS, we too “thank whatever gods may be… for (our) unconquered soul”…