AoIR8.0: What are the benefits 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 Researchers conference by Nicole Ellison from Michigan State University. Nicole’s been working with social network sites for quite a while, even co-editing the special Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication on SNSs. The presented research looked at what it is that people gain from being friends with others on Facebook. Reader’s research argued that most of the friends people connect with on the site aren’t really “friends”; that category is reserved for people who know one another offline. Ellison and her colleagues wanted to know what it was, therefore, that people got out of these online connections.

They focussed on the concept of social capital, or the resources accumulated because of relationships with other people. She distinguished between bridging social capital – or people who make connections between actors who aren’t necessarily in contact or are weakly tied, bonding social capital – or interaction experiences which make existing friendships stronger, and (a new one) maintaining social capital – or that those resources that come from keeping connections with people from the past (e.g., high school connections). Facebook friends, they argue, fall into the bridging social capital phenomenon.

Their results indicate that people aren’t using this particular SNS to meet new people. In fact, most of the “friends” people have aren’t particularly close friends at all – in this research, with 450+ student account holders at Michigan State University, they rate 5 on a scale of 1 (close) to 7 (not close at all). They’re using it to maintain existing connections, even tenuously. Quotes from the presentation about the meaning of friendship in this environment:

  • Un-friending is rarely done – the low cost to friendship means that there’s a consequence to the sense of closeness between people on the site
  • “I don’t know people who make friends in FB, but maybe they make better friends thru FB”
  • FB maintains relationships that otherwise wouldn’t exist outside
    People aren’t using FB to meet total strangers

So ultimately, they envisage the connections made between people on FB do enhance bridging social capital and maintaining social capital. Which is a good thing. Yes, the internet can actually be good for social interaction. Hurrah!

More information is here.

I’d maintain that these social capital observations are also relevant in environments where offline friendship doesn’t preclude an online link, and I hope to have data which supports this in future.

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~ by aleks on October 18, 2007.

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