Research on Social Networking

September 12, 2007 · Posted in social networking, Studies, Web 2.0 

Wired for FaceBook?

As my university students and I delve more into the phenomenon of social networking, I find myself looking for research that addresses the reasons that so many folks find social networking so compelling. Many of my students have an almost palpable fear of being un-connected to their network of friends, be that realized through cell phone, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook/MySpace/LiveJournal, and even e-mail. Some of my students maintain contacts in more than one of the aforementioned media simultaneously. The rapid rise of Twitter (“what are you doing right now?”) as a communication platform is further evidence of the need for constant affirmation through social contact. But how does this compare to “real,” face-to-face contact?

Evolutionary psychology may give us some clues. Michael Rogers, a columnist for MSNBC, recently reviewed a book by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar called “Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language” [Amazon link]. In this book, Dunbar examined the behavior of humans long before civilization or language developed. His basic premise is that understanding one’s place in the social hierarchy of early hominid groups was critical for survival and that this was largely accomplished by the same kind of grooming behavior that we currently see in apes, chimps, and monkeys. As these early hominid groups became larger, mutual grooming of every “tribe” member became impossible. The vehicle that replaced grooming as a social contact was language. Language facilitated quicker communication and the ability to communicate with multiple individuals at the same time. As Rogers puts it, “we haven’t stopped gossiping since.”

Intriguingly, Dunbar points out that there is a practical limit to the number of individuals with whom a single individual can maintain this kind of contact. That number is about 150. Large scale groups have developed a series of ways to compensate for this limitation by forming bureaucracies, social stratification, or other mechanisms to keep the numbers down to a manageable size, but the limitation still exists.

So–is social networking the next evolutionary step in increasing the number of contacts that an individual may have while still being able to understand one’s place in the hierarchy? Are we “wired” to have a Facebook page? It’s clearly too early to tell, but these are interesting times…

Who Are Your Friends?

“Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace do not help you make more genuine close friends, according to a survey by researchers who studied how the websites are changing the nature of friendship networks.”

That quote is from an article by Guardian science correspondent James Randerson titled “Social Networking Sites Don’t Deepen Friendships.” Citing results from a survey about the nature of friendships and how they may be influenced by social networks, Randerson concludes that, while an individual may have thousands of friends collected on MySpace or Facebook, these friends are not the same as friends developed in traditional face to face situations. Researchers found a distinction between friends made through a social network and “close” friends made by traditional means.

This is probably not a surprise to anyone. Trust engendered through traditional friendships is difficult to build and maintain through a medium in which it is so easy to misrepresent yourself. However, it appears to be the case that the generally accepted limit of 150 acquaintances (or 5 close friends) may be expanded through social networks by making it easier to keep in touch over distance and making it less expensive–both financially and in terms of effort expended–to maintain a large number of social contacts.

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2 Responses to “Research on Social Networking”

  1. Keith Rocci on October 3rd, 2007 3:35 pm

    I use facebook and feel it has a place in higher education. I also feel that I can assist students understand the role that these resources can provide or how they can hinder employment opportunities.

  2. skipvia on October 3rd, 2007 3:53 pm

    I appreciate your comment about “hindering” employment opportunities. It amazes me the extent to which some people expose information about themselves without realizing what implications that information may have for their privacy or even employment. It’s incumbent on educators at all levels to make this clear to students in the larger context of social networking.

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