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:
Although the numbers of friends people have on these sites can be massive, the actual number of close friends is approximately the same in the face to face real world
Research from 2007 by Dr. Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or ping me on twitter @aleksk.