Humans have always been very social creatures. Since the advent of time, humans have always relied on the benefits of groups and by pure necessity, social networks were created, as a means to share experiences, needs and desires. In fact, the concept of social networking, which is the forging of relationships between different groups of people, has strong roots in other species as well. According to researcher Eric Clemons, professor of Operations and Information and Management and Management at the Wharton School of Business, “Social networks are familiar to all who study primates, from baboon troops and gorilla and chimpanzee groups to human societies of all levels of cultural development” (1). In the past few years with the creation of Facebook in 2004 and the development of Twitter and MySpace, in 2006 and 2004 respectively, the rules of social networking are constantly changing (2).

In the past and even now, social networking is marked by the amount of material goods one possesses. The current era of social networking can be attributed to the development of the Social Age, and the modernization of technology. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, communication was both difficult and slow. As people migrated from the countryside to the cities, communication, even among friends, was uncommon and expensive.

It was not until the Second Industrial Revolution in 1875 that technology and social networking began to change-it became cheaper and less of a hassle. The invention of electricity, automobiles, and telephones made communication more affordable. At the advent of the 21 st century, following the invention of the internet, was the creation of many internet-based forms of communication and social status markers: wikis, blogs, and online profiling websites. Our generation, “The Net Generation,” also known as “Generation Y,” has added a new dimension to social networking-the internet (3).

Online Friends

Common markers of social networking’s success and social status have long been marked by ownership of material goods, such as cars, houses, and the number and type of friends that one possesses. And in the Internet Age, this has not really changed.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous online social networking website is now Facebook. Facebook was created in 2005 as a hobby by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard undergraduate. Initially, Zuckerberg and his friends possessed “Face Book” which contained pictures of everyone who lived in their dorm. Expanding on this concept, Zuckerberg created a website to serve as a virtual “Face Book” (4). In Facebook, friends are easily made by simply requesting someone’s friendship; the receiver must accept the friendship invitation.

However, unlike relationships that occur in person, relationships that occur on Facebook are more impersonal, more flippant, and more emotionless. Updates allow friends to keep track of one another, belonging to a particular group signals interests, and the number of friends one possesses may be an indication of one’s social status. (5)

According to research published by researchers in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University, college students were asked to view Facebook profiles that were completely identical except for the number of friends that a person had-102, 302, 502, 702, and 902. Interestingly, when asked to rate the target’s social attractiveness, the best results were found to belong to the profile with only 302 friends. In this finding, having too many friends might have appeared desperate, rather than popular (6).

In the 1990s, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University College of London proposed that the number of stable relationships that a person could have was 150 (7). The new age of social networking, such as Facebook, challenges this hypothesis. Considering that many users have over 150 friends online (the average user, however, has 130, according to Facebook), this calls into question the stability and strength of these online relationships, and their measurability as social status/ networking indicators (8).

The Impacts of the New Age

Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace are some of the leading social networks.

Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace are some of the leading social networks.

The new age of social networking has had a significant impact on the youth. Past forms of social networking-face-to-face interactions or sending snail mail-were no doubt more personal than current day social networking. Online social networking allows individuals to make contact with other individuals, but the impact of these new modes of communication have generated mixed opinions about whether this is beneficial or costly.

Although different from physical interaction in many respects, online interactions are similar to face-to-face interactions in many ways. In research conducted by Psychology professors at the University of Virginia, higher positivity and lower negativity predicted a larger number of friends online. In a study of 172 adolescents and their social interactions online, the researchers discovered that there was a strong overlap between real life interactions and those online. Self- and peer-reported positive friendship quality were associated with more supportive comments online, and self-reports of positivity were associated with a larger number of friends (9).

This new form of social networking, through the internet, might actually be beneficial to shy adolescents. Researcher Scott Caplan, associate professor at the University of Delaware, suggests that the more impersonal nature of online interactions might aid the formation of relationships, or at least, the strengthening of networks between different people. After all, online websites such as Facebook allow people to personally select what personal information they would like to post. Websites such as facebook provide some degree of anonymity, create space between the creator and the viewer, and according to Professor Caplan, allows shy individuals to exercise greater control over others impressions of them; since there is a greater ability to fabricate and exaggerate the positive aspects of one’s self online.

In his 2003 paper, Caplan suggested that a preference for online social interaction might result from one’s perception that online communication is easier, less risky, and more exciting than face-to-face communication (10).

However, researchers at the University of Windsor in Ontario, have discovered that the effect of online social networking on shy individuals is not significant-shy individuals do not seem to gain an advantage socially over the internet. Shy individuals were found to spend more time on online websites such as Facebook, and reported more favorable opinions about online websites than did nonshy individuals. Interestingly, even online, shy individuals still had fewer friends than did nonshy individuals.

Perhaps the most distinguishing factor between shy and nonshy individuals and their online social interaction use is nonshy individuals utilize online websites such as Facebook, but do not substitute Facebook usage for other forms of social interaction. These individuals tended to use online social networking to maintain relationships and share information (11).

The Demographics of Social Networking Through the Internet

Social networking via the internet has had different effects on different segments of the population. For example, particular demographic groups are more likely to depend on the internet to form relationships.

In a study conducted by researchers Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, and David Finkelhor at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire utilizing the Youth Internet Safety Survey, researchers used telephone interviews to gather information from a national sample of 1501 young people ages 10-17 in order to determine the group of individuals most susceptible to online relationships.

The results of the study showed that non-Hispanic white boys were about twice as likely to form close online relationships than boys belonging to minority racial and ethnic groups. The study also indicated that being highly troubled was found to be a motivating factor for forming social networks online for both girls and boys. In fact, boys whose parents were oblivious to the boys’ friends and problems were more likely to use online relationships as a source of comfort; for girls, conflict with their parents was a highly motivating factor for forming online relationships (12). The Internet is definitely a source of social support for these individuals.

Building Social Capital through Networking

There is little doubt that online social networking is another way of building social capital, the strength of social connections. The information posted, the number of friends, the kinds of friends, and the groups that a person joins are clearly indicative of an individual’s social capital, and are important factors in a person’s feeling of confidence and well-being.

In a 2007 study conducted by researchers Nicole Ellison, Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe at Michigan State University of 286 undergraduate students, the researchers measured the effect of Facebook usage on social capital. Findings indicated that Facebook usage improved social capital, of which benefits include increased information and opportunities. Although more research is required, the researchers at Michigan State University suggest that Facebook usage can also lower barriers to participation and can help form weak ties, but will not necessarily form close friendships associated with bonding social capital (13).

Conclusion

Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, social interactions and social networking have changed dramatically. Although research conducted in the field of online networking is relatively new, there is a general consensus that although social networking will not help form new relationships, they may help strengthen old ones.

References

1. Eric K. Clemons, Steven Barnett, Arjun Appadurai. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series 258, 268-76 (2007).

2. B.J. Tolentino, A look at YouTube’s Success , Available at http://www.helium.com/items/1945096-youtubes-success-story (22 September 2010).

3. The Net Generation, 1974-83 – Brainiac (2010). Available at http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2008/03/net_generation.html (12 June 2010).

4. Sid Yadav, Facebook- The Complete Biography (2005). Available at http://mashable.com/2006/08/25/facebook-profile/ (12 June 2010).

5. Craig Ross et al., Computer in Human Behavior 25, 578-86 (2009).

6. Stephanie Tom Tong, Brandon Van Der Heide, Lindsey Langwell, Joseph B. Walther, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13, 531-549 (2008).

7. The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes (2004). Available at http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2004/03/the_dunbar_numb.html (12 June 2010).

8. Press Room | Facebook (2010). Available at http://www.facebook.com/press (12 June 2010).

9. Amori Y. Mikami, David E. Szwedo, Joseph P. Allen, Meredyth A. Evans, Amanda L. Hare, Developmental Psychology 46, 46-56 (2010).

10. Scott E. Caplan. Communication Research 30, 625-48 (2003).

11. Emily S. Orr et al. , CyberPsychology & Behavior 12, 337-40 (2009).

12. Janis Wolak, Kimberly J. Mitchell, David Finkelhor, Escaping or Connecting? Characteristics of Youth Who Form Close Online Relationships 26, 105-19 (2003).

13. Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfeld, Cliff Lampe, The Benefits of Facebook “Friends”: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites (2008). Available at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/ellison.html (12 June 2010).

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