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Psychology

Online Social Networks: Enhanced Connectivity or Accelerated Isolation?

A decade ago staying in touch with friends may have involved meeting at a local café after work or at a playground after school. However, with the introduction of online social networks, we are able to connect with and talk to friends from the comfort of our homes. The convenience and increased connectivity offered by social networks have prompted many people to change their primary method of interpersonal communication from physical meetings to the virtual world of the Internet. Thus, the number of people using social networking sites has more than doubled in the two years from 2007 to 2009 with more than 55.6 million adults in the US alone using social networking sites on a regular basis (Adam Ostrow).

This surge in the number of users has cause researchers to closely study the impacts of social networking site on our lives. These studies were based off of a survey conducted in 2006, which dealt primarily with the ways in which the composition of a person’s core group had varied. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith‐Lovin and Matthew Brashears analyzed the changes that had occurred in core group relationships in the 21st century. They announced in their paper, ”Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” that the average American’s core discussion network, the network of people with whom he or she discusses important issues, has shrunk and become less diverse over the past twenty years. They stated that the average American’s core group has dwindled from 2.94 to 2.08 people, with close to half of the population reporting that they had no one with which to discuss important issues. The researchers also noticed a striking drop in the number of the people that included non-kin members in their core group. However they offered no explanation as to why this drastic change had occurred.

Researchers in the field of interpersonal relationships soon began attributing these changes to the widespread use of online social networks. In their paper “Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships” psychologists Subrahmanyam and Greenfield argued that online social networking sites promoted the formation of “less rich” and “superficial” relationships due to the lack of physical cues such as gestures and eye contact. They also argued that the use of instant messaging was making users less interested in face-to-face communication.

Another concern about online social networking was that it might lead to users distancing themselves from each other. A Social Networking Sites’ (SNS) user has a “Profile” that records all that he has done on the website and displays his “status updates,” recent photos and even relationship changes. Thus by simply viewing a profile page users feel as though they have kept in touch, whereas in reality all they have read is that which the owner of the page wants the entire world to see; users know nothing more than an acquaintance does. Thus if SNS were to become the primary method of communication, it could result in users distancing themselves from their core group.

A third concern that researchers expressed was that social networks were highly impersonal. As social networks are a form of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) they have a highly reduced number of socio-emotional cues. Social Presence Theory (Joseph Walther) suggests that the lower the number of cues that a medium offers, the less is the attention that a user pays to messages received over such a medium, and as CMC offers less cues than Face-To-Face (FTF) meetings, people may pay less attention to a message received over a social network.

However, further research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and theories on Computer Mediated Communication by Joseph Walther have begun to support opposing views: views that say social networks have actually brought people together. Their studies have dealt mainly with the two extreme degrees of relationships: the core group and the acquaintances. Social networks have had positive impacts on both these extreme; both have become more intimate, but due to different reasons.

The Core Group

The core group is formed of the few people with whom a person discusses matters that are especially significant to them. The members of the core group are the people that a person relies on for social and emotional support. It usually consists of close friends, spouses and immediate family.

Your core group would generally share the same viewpoints and values as you do, as these would be the people you would most likely get along with. Social networks help diversify and expand your core group by introducing you to like-minded people through fan-pages and online groups.

Social networks can also help build core groups for people who may otherwise have been isolated. A teenage boy with Down’s syndrome or a 50-year-old woman who is a fan of hard rock may meet people that share similar interests and problems through a social network’s group page. Facebook alone returned hundreds of results for a search on “Down’s Syndrome groups” and “Hard rock fans” reflecting that people have taken advantage of online groups to reach out to those sharing similar problems and interests. Thus social networks help build, expand and diversify core groups.

Psychologists Subrahmanyam and Greenfield argued that online social networking sites promoted the formation of “less rich” and “superficial” relationships due to the lack of physical cues such as gestures and eye contact. However the lack of physical cues has the opposite effect: it promotes an emotionally richer relationship. As social networks are a form of Computer Mediated Communication, it has a reduced set of cues, primarily verbal, that a user can receive. Due to the absence of physical cues, users are freed from social pressures such as “I must smile” or “I must look interested”. This provides more time for message construction and review, which can result in more emotionally involved and relationship centered conversations (Joseph Walther). Walther further investigated how relationships proceed under a reduced set of cues. He studied relationships between couples that communicated primarily Face-to-Face, via the telephone or letters. He found that couples formed a more favourable impression of each other when the number of cues was the lowest, i.e., the letter. Thus social networks can be a platform to increase the emotional quality of a relationship.

The argument that social networks cause core groups to drift apart is flawed primarily due to the fact that one’s core group is comprised of the people with whom one would interact most frequently online, through Instant Messaging, or offline, in Face-to-Face conversations, and thus the probability that they would drift apart is minimal to non-existent.

Thus online social networks have had positive impacts on our relationship with our core group and later studies have confirmed this. A survey conducted by the Pew Internet Research Center reports that the average American in 2008 had 1.93 discussion confidants, but this number increased to 2.16 discussion confidants in 2011. Users of social networking sites had 2.45 close ties and only 5% reported having no one in their core discussion group compared to 7% of Internet users, that did not use social networking sites, who reported feeling isolated (Keith, Goulet, Rainie and Purcell).

The report further stated that “users of social networking services are 26% less likely to have used neighbors as a source of companionship” (Hampton, Sessions, Her, Rainie). This does not indicate that user’s do not know their neighbours, but that they do not need to turn to them for companionship in times of need, as they have formed close and strong ties with their core group and are thus able to turn to them in the event of any problem, rather than to their neighbours, whom they know primarily because of physical proximity, something that has become arbitrary in the days of the Internet.

This raises the question of why the survey conducted by sociologists McPherson, Smith‐Lovin and Brashears concluded that people were more isolated after the invention of social networking. The answer lies in the fact that the researchers may have presented their questions with inherent ambiguities. To measure the size of a person’s core network they asked volunteers, “from time to time most people discuss important matters with other people. Looking back over the past six months who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” (Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith‐Lovin and Matthew Brashears).

The researchers could have overlooked the possibility that people may understand the word “discuss” differently when discussions occur online. Sociologists Keith, Sessions, Her, and Rainie proposed that respondents may name people that they see more frequently in person rather than people they see online. They conducted a similar survey in 2009, but to gauge respondents’ core networks they introduced a secondary question, “now let’s think about people you know in another way. Looking back over the last six months, who are the people especially significant in your life?” (Keith, Sessions, Her, and Rainie)

They conjectured that if the meaning of the word “discuss” had changed, people would answer the second question with names that were different from those in the first question. The results of the survey confirmed this; “26% of people listed one, 16% listed two, and 18% listed between three and five people who were especially significant in their lives, but with whom they did not “discuss” important matters” (Keith, Sessions, Her, and Rainie). Although people may have different interpretations of the word “significant” which may have altered results, the study was accurate enough to conclude that the word “discuss” may not include online discussions. This could account for the grim findings of the 2006 survey conducted by McPherson, Smith‐Lovin and Brashears.

The Acquaintances

Thus social networks have brought us closer to our core group, but what of the other extreme of our relationships? Research points to the fact that online social networking has also had significant, positive, impact on the way we interact with our acquaintances.

In an early paper on Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) Koehler and Trimpop stated that based on experiments conducted by them on people that had never met before, users were more direct and confrontational in conversations via CMCs. This caused the buildup of the popular outlook that CMC based communication was highly impersonal and the fear that this “impersonality” would lead to the “superficial” relationships hypothesized by Subrahmanyam and Greenfield. However these experiments had an inherent flaw: it was a one-time, time-bound experiment. The researchers failed to take into account the fact that people behave differently when they expect to meet again (Joseph Walther).

Walther realized this and conducted another study where people were told they would work on three tasks in groups of three over CMCs or Face-To-Face (FTF). One half of the participants were told that they would work with a different group each time and the other half were told that they would work with the same group. Results showed that the two groups of users of CMC had a profound difference in levels of personal interaction. Further, he stated that, once the difference in behavior due to the “anticipation of future interaction” was taken into account there was no difference between CMC and FTF users on “immediacy, similarity, composure and receptivity of group members” (Walther).

Social networks offer the possibility of future interaction and thus people tend to be more social when they meet, whether at a meeting or a bar. Online social networks also facilitate the growth of these relationships due to the highly asynchronous nature of online messaging (Walther). A person would be reluctant to take time away from matters that are of importance to him to arrange a meeting with an acquaintance, but he can “meet” the acquaintance online from the comfort of his home. Also, since both parties do not have to be present at the same time, people log on to social networks when they are finished with their work for the day, and are thus in a more genial mood. Free from other pressures, people tend to form a more favorable perception of their interlocutor, thus fostering the growth of the relationship (Walther). This results in CMC groups being more socially oriented than FTF groups (Walther). People that have met Face-To-Face have taken time away from other pressing issues and thus immediately get to work on the task issued to them. However the CMC groups meet at times when its members have completed their work, and thus they also spend time in socially involved conversation.

Social networks can also keep relationships “dormant” for extended periods of time until they can be “revived” by virtual or physical meetings. A reunion with an old friend from high school is no longer left to a chance meeting, but can be pre-planned online. Online social networks also offer the possibility of finding people you once knew, to rekindle or begin a relationship.

The online group “Best of Facebook Stories” tells a story of childhood sweetheartsCarmen Aponte and David Lorenzano. Eight weeks before their planned marriage the two had a fight, which culminated in them calling off their wedding and separating. Both of them led normal lives and got married to other people, however both marriages ended, with David divorcing his wife and Carmen being widowed. Forty years after their planned wedding David and Carmen met each other on Facebook again. They began talking online, slowly picking up the pieces of their shattered relationship and began rekindling their romance. David soon flew to Carmen’s home in Texas and asked her to marry him. Forty years after they went their separate ways, they were able to wield the power of the online social network to find each other again.

Conclusion

Online social networks have brought us closer to our core group by enabling us to have more emotionally involved conversations with them. Asynchronous chat allows us to talk to, and keep in touch with, our many acquaintances at leisure. Social networks also contain the possibility of rekindling an old relationship through a reunion, physical or virtual. Thus, contrary to common perceptions, online social networks have enhanced connectivity between individuals.

 

 

Works Cited

  1. Ostrow, Adam. Number of Social Networking Users Has Doubled Since 2007. Mashable, 28 July 2009. Web. 21 July 2011.
  2. McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears. “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review 71.3 June (2006): 353-75. Web. 21 July 2011.
  3. Walther, Joseph. “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction. “Communication Research 23.1 Feb. (1996). Web. 15 July 2011.
  4. Hampton, Keith, Lauren Goulet, Lee Rainie, and Kristen Purcell. Social Networking sites and our lives. Washington DC: Pew Internet Research Center, 2011. Web. 16 July 2011.
  5. Hampton, Keith, Lauren Sessions, Eun Her, and Lee Rainie. Social Isolation and New Technology. Washington DC: Pew Internet Research Center, 2009. Web. 15 July 2011.
  6. Koehler, T, and R Trimpop. “Self Esteem and Self Reference In Computer Mediated Communication.” Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Toronto. 8 Dec. 1996. Web. 23 July 2011.
  7. Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, and Patricia Greenfield. “Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships.” The Future of Children Spring (2008). Web. 23 July 2011.
  8. Ruane, Michael E. “Woman abandoned in Fairfax as a baby finds her rescuers.” The Washington Post 17 Dec. 2009. Web. 25 July 2011.
  9. “Young Love Rekindled on Facebook.” Best of Facebook Stories. N.p., 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 5 Aug. 2011.

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