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?

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~ by aleks on September 11, 2007.

5 Responses to “You can’t make friends online”

  1. Uh, they say “Ninety per cent of contacts whom the subjects regarded as close friends were people they had met face to face.”

    They seem to be implying exclusivity in the medium – that you either know people online or you know them offline. It doesn’t work like that. The Internet is just another place to meet people. And, if nearby, you eventually meet online friends in person.

    You’re right, Facebook isn’t a place I’d think of to make friends. It’s for networking. Over ten years ago, I made friends on Usenet and IRC (and I organised monthly meets in London). Recently it’s been Second Life and, surprisingly, Askville. I am still friends with people I met over a decade ago – in fact, I married one of them!

    Psst, would they say that old-fashioned letter-writing pen-pals aren’t real friends either?

  2. I agree with one central point you make, Aleks – that the nature of friendship online can have a quality that is difficult to replicate in the real world. That ‘deeper sense of trust and closeness’ is just one, though important, part of it. If the friendship is a purely online one, i.e. not a friendship that extends into the real world of face-to-face, it can generate a sense of personal and mutual liberty that is not often found in the tied down world out here in the real world.

    Some might say that kind of openness demands anonymity, but I don’t agree. It’s an area worth exploring, I believe.

  3. […] of Facebook friends? (Ellison et al) An addendum to Will Reader’s research which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago comes from a presentation this morning at the Association of Internet […]

  4. Online friendship has both aspects. One connects quicly friends all over world with having all goodness. Second has all evilness via social networking. So it depends on us how we are using.

  5. We’ve been doing a fair bit of qual research on the dynamics of social gaming amongst teenagers, looking at a wide variety of virtual worlds. There is a strong correlation between strength of ‘offline friendship’ (if we can call it that) and ‘stickiness’ of a game. Some games are particularly prone to this (mainly MMORPGs) and there were quite a few examples of teens who would quit playing games if they’re friends also quit.

    Certainly some of the research we’ve been doing would suggest that, especially for teenagers, relationships formed online tend to be very functional and ephemeral. The idea of ‘socialising’ (and it’s associated transactions – emoticons, ‘stroking etc) with a stranger online is something that most teens are particularly uncomfortable with. Teens are far more comfortable hanging out and ‘performing’ amongst their own peer group.

    However, sometimes the mere presence and appreciation of the scale of a virtual world can heighten the experience. Some games are very adept at creating a great sense of scale and of being a part of something big (think WoW). Where the immediate peer group is absent, this can drive teens on to perform as their achievements are more likely to be recognised.

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