Management Information Systems Quarterly (MISQ), Vol. 46, Issue 2, pp. 771-812, 2022

Social Capital Accumulation Through Social Media Networks: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment and Individual-Level Panel Data

Work-related social media networks (SMNs) like LinkedIn introduce novel networking opportunities and features that promise to help individuals establish, extend, and maintain social capital (SC). Typically, work-related SMNs offer access to advanced networking features exclusively to premium users in order to encourage basic users to become paying members. Yet little is known about whether access to these advanced networking features has a causal impact on the accumulation of SC. To close this research gap, we conducted a randomized field experiment and recruited 215 freelancers in a freemium, work-related SMN. Of these recruited participants, more than 70 received a randomly assigned voucher for a free 12- month premium membership. We observe that individuals do not necessarily accumulate more SC from their ability to access advanced networking features, as the treated freelancers did not automatically change their online networking engagement. Those features only reveal their full utility if individuals are motivated to proactively engage in networking. We found that freelancers who had access to advanced networking features increased their SC by 4.609% for each unit increase on the strategic networking behavior scale. We confirmed this finding in another study utilizing a second, individual-level panel dataset covering 52,392 freelancers. We also investigated the dynamics that active vs. passive features play in SC accumulation. Based on these findings, we introduce the “theory of purposeful feature utilization”: essentially, individuals must not only possess an efficacious “networking weapon”—they also need the intent to “shoot” it.