The Strength of Digital Ties: Virtual Networks, Norm-Generating Communities, and Collective Action Problems

72 Pages Posted: 3 May 2018 Last revised: 23 Aug 2018

Date Written: May 3, 2018


To live in a nomos—a norm-generating community—is to understand the norms that are expected of us; to honor our credible commitments to other members of the community; and to share the values, the goals, and even the myths, histories, and stories of the community. For millennia, humans have used narratives, or stories, to communicate norms and values designed to spur the communities they inhabit to solve collective action problems by encouraging their members to trust and to be trustworthy. To do so, we have used a range of tools, media, and settings for those communications, from oral histories and cave drawings to television and Twitter. Indeed, today, new digital tools enable human communication and cooperation in ways never before imagined, opening the possibility that collective will can be harnessed to solve collective action problems by generating narratives and norms of cooperation and trust.

This Article attempts to explore the potential consequences of these new forms of digital networks as methods for establishing trust and cooperative action. This action is essential for solving some of the greatest challenges the world faces. Such challenges are, by their nature, difficult to solve without meaningful cooperation and engagement of individuals and the networks and the normative communities in which they are embedded. Today we have new tools, new ways of communicating and connecting, and new modes of world-building and narrative-telling that could help create new norm-generating communities that facilitate cooperation, trust, and trustworthiness. This Article explores if today’s digital networks can manufacture a new form of networked trust, what sociologists call “social capital,” that can help generate cooperation and spur collective action. In other words, this Article asks whether this new form of social capital, what I will call “synthetic social capital,” is as effective as traditional forms of social capital in communicating norms of trust and if it is durable enough to spur and facilitate cooperation for solving collective action problems.

I argue here that social capital that is generated through digital networks holds out the promise of creating the trust and fostering the cooperation that is required to address collective action problems. These tools are thus part of the norm-generating capacity—the nomosgenerative nature and narrative-creating infrastructure—at the disposal of communities seeking to create the trust and cooperative values necessary to solve collective action problems. I will show that this synthetic social capital generates many of the same benefits of traditional social capital. What’s more, I argue that it is in a better position to facilitate the type of coordinated action that is necessary to activate such social capital to address problems of collective action in a cooperative fashion. While some social capital theorists, like Robert Putnam, argue that modern technology, like the television, has played a role in the reduction of social capital and the destruction of networks through which social capital can flow, I argue otherwise. New technologies, like the internet and mobile communications, have the capacity to create broad networks of trust. They thus offer hope that such networks will not just generate—but also coordinate—social capital, which can, in turn, spur the cooperation necessary for addressing collective action problems.

Keywords: Social Capital, Social Media, Norms

JEL Classification: K30

Suggested Citation

Brescia, Raymond H., The Strength of Digital Ties: Virtual Networks, Norm-Generating Communities, and Collective Action Problems (May 3, 2018). 122 Dickinson Law Review 479, Albany Law School Research Paper No. 13 for 2018-2019, Available at SSRN:

Raymond H. Brescia (Contact Author)

Albany Law School ( email )

80 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, NY 12208
United States

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