Sunday, February 17, 2008

Freakonomics on the Benefits and Pitfalls of Social Network Sites

The Freakonomics blog over at the nyt has posted a set of responses to the question, “Has social networking technology (blog-friendly phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) made us better or worse off as a society, either from an economic, psychological or sociological perspective?” My response is there, as are others by danah, Judith Donath, Will Reader, Martin Baily and Steve Chazin.

Overall, I found the range of opinions was surprisingly narrow, with most of us agreeing that the SNSs had both positive and negative potential outcomes depending on how they were used and who was using them. The demonization of SNSs (Myspace abductions and the like) that I expected did not materialize, and many of Chazin’s comments weren’t really SNS-specific, but rather concerns about mediated communication replacing f2f (which have accompanied the introduction of the telephone and every communication technology since).

Two points struck me:

Few would disagree with Will Reader’s claim that “Face-to-face contact is, I believe, very important for the formation of intimate relationships.” I do disagree, however, with his suggestion that college students are using SNSs to manufacture friendship networks before arriving on campus and thus insulating themselves from friends who don’t mirror their beliefs and preferences (similar to the concept of the “Daily Me”). Reader writes, “It might be if, by choosing potential friends via their Facebook profiles, it means that folk cut themselves off from serendipitous encounters with those who are superficially different from them, ethnically, socio-economically, and even in terms of musical taste.” I haven’t seen Reader’s SNS papers as none are publicly available, so this may be true for the population he is studying. But our data suggest that students typically do not use Facebook to meet new people. (This is based on our 2006 survey data as reported in the JCMC article and is reinforced in our 2007 data, which we are currently writing up.) Rather, they use the site to learn more about people with whom they share some kind of an offline connection (e.g., live in their dorm, in the same class). This information-seeking can result in a f2f conversation, a casual friendship, or may go nowhere. Although we haven’t probed the specific case of what students do the summer before they begin college, I think Reader’s concerns about students using Facebook to create social echo chambers before setting foot on campus are unfounded.

Secondly, although I agreed with many of Judith’s points (and love her work on SNSs and other social media), I did wonder about one of her statements: “[SNSs] devalue the meaning of “friend.” Our traditional notion of friendship embraces trust, support, compatible values, etc. On social network sites, a “friend” may simply be someone on whose link you have clicked.”

This echoes a common set of concerns I’ve noticed around SNSs, involving the ease with which SNSs allow individuals to link to others as “friends” and the belief that this will somehow dilute the meaning of this term. As noted by “Stacy” in her comment on the NYT blog, Facebook users we’ve surveyed are very savvy about the wide range of relationships that are described by the term Facebook “Friend.” In fact, we’ve asked users in surveys and interviews about how many Facebook “Friends” they have and how many of these are “actual” friends. Our respondents can articulate how many of their "Facebook Friends" are "actual friends" - about one-third, on average. This suggests to me that
  1. Facebook users are able to distinguish between the term used by Facebook to indicate one’s contacts and “friendship” as traditionally conceived.
  2. Many of these “non-actual” friends are “weak ties” and thus the source of perspectives, information, and opportunities that Judith and I reference.

This is a small point, though, and overall I thought her summary of the benefits of weak ties as enabled by SNSs was excellent, as were danah's examples of SNSs in action. I also enjoyed the comments by readers, although I'll admit I found a few of them rather crytic.