Last week, I posted the audio version of the Untangling the Web chapter about identity. This week, I look at a far more social side of our personalities: Friendship.

In 1998, Robert Kraut from Carnegie Mellon University and his colleagues published their research about a group of people they had introduced to the web. From 1994 to 1996, they’d asked this group to rate their levels of well-being, their feelings of social isolation and the number of friends they had. And in this period, while going online the new web users reported that they had fewer social bonds and felt more depressed, and struggled to establish trust in other people in virtuality. How could they be friends with someone? They couldn’t even be sure who the other person was. 

Newspapers splashed with the article’s subheading, “A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being?” Fanning the flames of fear with this new, untested technology, this research paper is still one of the most frequently cited papers when journalists write about the quality of life online. But according to what we know now, after fifteen years of research that has consistently and almost universally contradicted the findings of the Internet Paradox, the web is one the best places to make new friends and have a rich and rewarding social life in the modern world.

Have a hear and tell me what you think!

"Aleks Krotoski is a rare combination of academic (she has a PhD in psychology), geek, reporter and fluent essayist." - The Guardian

"Her combination of cautious academic rigour and geek-like enthusiasm makes a very valuable contribution to the debate" - Financial Times

Until Wednesday 18 December (last order date for Christmas), people using code UNTANGLING at theguardian.com/bookshop can get copies of Untangling the Web for £6.50, saving 50% off RRP.

The book’s also on sale at the Faber & Faber website, on UK Amazon or on US Amazon. Other territories are available too!

Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we find that the internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters. With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet. The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help

Rainie, L., Horrigan, J., Wellman, B. & Boase, J. (2006, Jan 25). The Strength of Internet Ties, Pew Internet & American Life Project.

A large-scale study of the effects of the web on social capital and relationships between Americans. Published in 2006, it focusses less on social networks like Facebook and more on tech like email.

Positive in general. “Part of everyday life”. Useful in putting social networks in motion when people “need help with important issues in their lives” because people have more active ties with a broader range of people than offline.

Summary of the findings:

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More on virtual closeness: indicators of online “friendship”

You just have to know what to look for when you’re trying to identify how close virtual friends are.

I found “tells” of friendship closeness in my PhD research, by measuring “closeness” as degrees of perceived trust, credibility and group prototypicality, and the degree to which virtual contacts are considered to be sources of social comparison. 

But there are many ways researchers who spend much of their time measuring relationships - particularly social network analysts - try to delineate the contents of a connection between people. Some choose to look at the semantic differences defined by the target population (Diane Kirke even found that her population distinguished between “friends” and “pals”), while some look at behaviours, like the amount of communication that passes between people (e.g., Everett Rogers).

Here are other ways you can identify closeness/distance in online relationships, pulled a talk I gave to Ubiquitous Computing students at the University of Nottingham:

Technologically, some people choose to look at the number links between people, say hypertext links between blogs in the blogosphere, or the number of times people refer to one another in instant message chat. On a technology like Twitter, you can look to see who follows who, if the follower follows the followee (aka a reciprocal relationship), and, on top of that, how often they @ one another. Rogers calls that a ’communication closness’, and yes, it’s interesting, but I don’t think it captures everything.
In fact, I feel that if you want to get to the nitty gritty of what defines friendship, you have to look at the psychological features of closeness. Across a vast body of literature about online and offline closeness, I focus on trust. But how do you capture trust relationships through bits and bytes? By identifying who’s giving who money? That’s one way. But the more meat-space way is to ask, outright, who one trusts, or who one feels close to. That was what I had to do.

[In 2006-2008] I studied the people who use Second Life, the online virtual world that became very popular a few years ago. I asked over 750 users users of SL about their almost 6,000 connections. What I found was that indeed, there was a spectrum of closeness relationships between people who didn’t know one another offline, and that this closeness developed in the same way as offline friendships and relationships develop: through sharing, through disclosure, through reciprocation of personal information and through perceptions of similarity. Deb Levine wrote about this a decade ago in her paper, “Virtual Attraction: What rocks your boat”.

Why is this interesting? Well, because many of the theories about how people influence one another’s attitudes and behaviours focus on friendship. The closer the friendship, the more likely attitudes and behaviours will be similar. And if there is  the possibility of people influencing one another online, we should understand how they operationalise friendship.

Each community has its own tells. Finding them is about tapping into the community and applying insider knowledge.

At last year’s Cyberpsychology & Computer Psychology conference, then-PhD student Rob Comber presented the results of his close analysis of “friendship” in youth-oriented social network Bebo.

These are his slides.

In them, he describes the shortcomings of this technology (and most social network sites) for close friendship, particularly how the system doesn’t allow for the demarcation of “close” versus “strong” friendships. He makes an important point in his conclusion:

Viewed in isolation this would suggest that Bebo users don’t experience an increased sense of closeness with others

  • It may even appear to reduce closeness

However, that is not the case

  • Users participate as a way to signify participation in their social world
  • Friends lists are meaningful displays of friendship

I’ve interviewed Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar on a couple of occasions over the last few years, asking the evolutionary anthropologist most renowned for identifying the “Dunbar Number" - the theoretical maximum number of connections for a functioning human social group - about the effects of the Web on friendship.

This is one of those interviews, from The Observer in March 2010.

You can see & hear more of Prof Dunbar’s thoughts on the effects of Facebook and other web techs in the video (and read them in the first chapter of his book of collective essays, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, but here’s a relevant little titbit:

Can we manage to have meaningful relationships with more than just the old numbers? Yes, I can find out what you had for breakfast from your tweet, but can I really get to know you better? These digital developments help us keep in touch, when in the past a relationship might just have died; but in the end, we actually have to get together to make a relationship work.

In the end, we rely heavily on touch and we still haven’t figured out how to do virtual touch. Maybe once we can do that we will have cracked a big nut.

During the filming of  the BBC series Virtual Revolution, I tested the Dunbar number on a sample of me, to see how applicable it was to my social networking experience. Check out the results here.

Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmarkm, V., Kiesler, S., Mukopadhyay, T. & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and psychological Well-Being? American Psychologist, 53 (9): 1017-1031.

(pdf)

The seminal “internet causes social ills” article that most scare headlines are based on, despite it being published in 1998.

Here’s the abstract:

The Internet could change the lives of average citizens as much as did the telephone in the early part of the 20th century and television in the 1950s and 1960s. Researchers and social critics are debating whether the Internet is improving or harming participation in community life and social relationships. This research examined the social and psychological impact of the lnternet on 169 people in 73 households during their first 1 to 2 years on-line. We used longitudinal data to examine the effects of the Internet on social involvement and psychological well-being. In this sample, the Internet was used extensively for communication. Nonetheless, greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness. These findings have implications for research, for public policy, and for the design of technology.

The most important thing to note about this study is that the authors published a follow-up in 2002 - Internet Paradox Revisited (pdf) - that retracts many of their findings. Here’s that abstract:

Kraut et al. (1998) reported negative effects of using the Internet on social involvement and psychological well-being among new Internet users in 1995–96. We called the effects a “paradox” because participants used the Internet heavily for communication, which generally has positive effects. A 3-year follow-up of 208 of these respondents found that negative effects dissipated. We also report findings from a longitudinal survey in 1998–99 of 406 new computer and television purchasers. This sample generally experienced positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being. However, consistent with a “rich get richer” model, using the Internet predicted better outcomes for extraverts and those with more social support but worse outcomes for introverts and those with less support.

Topic: Friendship

The Web is a cold, technologically-mediated communication device that serves to connect people with information and with one another. But in transforming our interactions into binary 1s and 0s, have we lost something essentially human about our interpersonal relationships?

What has the Web done to friendship, a feature of functioning society that both keeps us accountable to one another and provides us with the emotional support we psychologically need? Are we devaluing our close friends by widening our social circles out to hundreds of “friends” on social networks? Can the Web serve as a replacement mechanic for the bonding that happens with face-to-face experience? Or does it connect us with people we’d never have met otherwise?

This fortnight’s Untangling the Web topic delves into the function of friendship, and the form it takes online. Have you unexpectedly made a bff online, or has a social network left you with emotional anemia?

Send your thoughts and stories to aleks.krotoski.freelance@guardian.co.uk or ping me on twitter @aleksk.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M, boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H.A., Lange, P.G., Mahendran, D., Martinez, K.Z., Pascoe, C.J., Perkel, D., Robinson, L., Sims, C., Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

the link above is the pdf to the whole book. Chapters/topics include: media ecologies, friendship, intimacy, families, gaming, creative production and work. It is based on a three-year ethnographic study of on-the-ground youth practices by researchers around the US.

if you don’t have time to read the 441 page book, there are links to the summary of the Digital Youth Research project here.

my notes from the (extensive) introduction:

"Although specific forms of technology uptake are highly diverse, a generation is growing up in an era where digital media are part of the taken-for-granted social and cultural fabric of learning, play, and social communication." (p. xi)

US perspective, starting point is literacies and participation in new forms of meadia for a learning outcome.

"Today’s youth may be engaging in negotiations over developing knowledge and identity, coming of age, and struggling for autonomy as did their predecessors, but they are doing this while the contexts for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression are being reconfigured through their engagement with new media." (p. 1)

and

"There is a growing public discourse (both hopeful and fearful) declaring that young people’s use of digital media and communication technologies defines a generational identity distinct from that of their elders." (p. 2)

this is what I hope to find evidence for in the research for this column.

Popular culture and online communication provide a window onto examining youth practice in contexts where young people feel ownership over the social and cultural agenda.

Like the environments of the past: music, literature, art, the liminal activities that happened at the mall, sport…? The “new” media demand participation (rather than simple observation), thus allowing self-expression in a way that other media have not in the past (and thus how other media could only reflect (and, as this book argues, manipulate) youth culture, rather a setting of cultural generation). Music, literature, art, the mall, sport have always been democratised. Now the method of transmission used to get the results of these pursuits out to an audience of peers and others is democratised and can be used for expression.

But does that change the function of “youth culture”?

Within their local life worlds, popular culture can provide kids with a space to negotiate issues of identity and belonging within peer cultures

does “participatory media culture” (Jenkins, 2006) and “hypersociality” (Ito, 2008) change the game?

They distinguish between “friendship-driven” and “interest-driven” participation, co-mingling delineations that distinguish between youth subcultures and the peer interactions that may or may not be interwoven with them. “MySpace and Facebook are the emblematic online sites for [friendship-driven] sets of practice,” but the interest-driven practices are “the domain of the geeks, freaks, musicians, artists, and dorks.”

lovely quote:

Although we all experience private moments of learning and reflection, a large part of what defi nes us as social beings and learners happens in contexts of group social interaction and engagement with shared cultural forms. Engagement with media (itself a form of mediated sociability) is a constitutive part of how we learn to participate as culturally competent, social, and knowledgeable beings.

aha: a function! and not in any way different from previous participations. it’s just mediated now.

BUT.

As danah boyd discusses in her analysis of participation on MySpace, networked publics differ from traditional teen publics (such as the mall or the school) in some important ways. Unlike unmediated publics, networked publics are characterized by their persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences (boyd 2007). With friendship-driven practices, youth online activity largely replicates their existing practices of hanging out and communicating with friends, but these characteristics of networked publics do create new kinds of opportunities for youth to develop their public identities, connect, and communicate.

These technologies facilitate new forms of private, intimate, and always-on communication as well as new forms of publicity where personal networks and social connections are displayed to broader publics than have traditionally been available locally to teens.

this is a nice perspective quote from chapter 1:

When teens are together online and offl ine, they integrate new media within the informal hanging out practices that have characterized peer social life ever since the postwar era and the emergence of teens as a distinct leisure class.

While the content and form of much of popular culture has changed in the intervening decades, the core practices of how youth engage with media as part of their hanging out with peers remains resilient.

so in other words, they don’t do much that’s different. it’s just “hypersocial” because they use “hypermedia”.

Kids will look for work-arounds and backchannels to undermine institutional regulations. in other words, they’ll push the boundaries to get what they want. clever kids.

"messing around" online, an important part of identity development and social play, demands time and place. and a certain amount of autonomy over media choices. so by restricting kids’ access, this report suggests you are restricting kids’ participation in youth culture.

says danah in Chapter 2 (friendship):

For youth who hope to succeed socially in their school-based peer networks, these kinds of new media literacies are becoming crucial to youth’s participation.

of course, they’ll find ways - whether that’s going to friends’ houses or joining after school clubs.

more from chapter 2:

Just as they have done in parking lots and shopping malls, teens gather in networked public spaces for a variety of purposes, including to negotiate identity, gossip, support one another, jockey for status, collaborate, share information, fl irt, joke, and goof off. They go there to hang out.

here are a couple of ways that danah proposes make the online development and expression of youth culture different from pre-web practices:

social media tend to accentuate the longer-burning trend through the past century toward teens’ developing social and cultural forms that are segregated from adult society.

and

Teens are able to keep in closer and ongoing touch with one another and to support the relationships that they are nurturing in their local peer-based networks, which most see as their primary source of identity and affiliation.

lots in here for those interested. These are just the notes from the first three chapters - those that are particularly relevant to this fortnight’s topic.