You can’t make friends online
Well, that’s what The Guardian says today in its report on the British Association Festival of Science. Well, what Will Reader, from Sheffield Hallam University actually said to the gathered in York was that you can extend the offline Dunbar number of relationships through such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook, by expanding your pool of acquaintances.
It’s mild extrapolation from this statement to the attention-grabbing headline, of course. There is some suggestion within Dr Reader’s quotes – both in the word “acquaintance” and in an allusion to the physical proximity argument of community – that so-called “true” friendships require face-to-face contact. There’s quite a lot of research on the transitivity of online relationships, which doesn’t necessarily suggest that it’s a bad thing. In fact, the loose connections which one develops with loads of people means that the connections one maintains within one’s online community develop a deeper sense of trust and closeness, and a greater sense of generalised trust, both of which are important for public participation and online and offline community engagement.
Anyway, I find it extremely timely that I saw this on the front page of The Guardian whilst I was taking a break from reading journal articles from 2006 and 2004 which blatantly argue the opposite.
I’m currently cramming in a bit more reading before I set down to writing the online communities literature review chapter of the PhD and finally grabbed the opportunity to read up on online social capital. Does internet interaction allow for generalised trust, information exchange, normative influence and reputation? Well, according to Best & Kruger (2006), Williams (2006) and Blanchard & Horan (1998), it does. Best & Kuger even found that such a process relates similarly to both online interactions and f2f interactions (like attending a club or church): the internet doesn’t replace existing face-to-face relationships, particularly if people use the medium to make new friends rather than just to surf the web.
In terms of close friendships, other researchers like (Levine, 2000 and Correll, 1995) have argued a similar things about the benefits of face-to-face communication. I’d be interested to know how many of those “close” friendships Dr Reader observed were close before the social network site and how many met online.
Further, Facebook and MySpace aren’t necessarily media geared towards meeting people. They’re intended to consolidate people who already know one another. What if Dr Reader’s study was conducted in another type of online community, like a virtual world?
So many questions. So few answers. Anyone have any?
~ by aleks on September 11, 2007.