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Monday, January 31, 2011

Does Facebook Make Us More Sociable—It Depends on Whom You Ask

Does Facebook Make Us More Sociable—It Depends on Whom You Ask - Technorati Technology

Does Facebook increase our sociability score or lower our expectations of others?

As my friend, Miriam Goldberg, would say, “Facebook, Schmacebook—it’s just an excuse to stay home.” (Thank you, Miriam, for that incisive commentary on the hermits and recluses among us.) According to S. Craig Watkins, PhD, and H. Erin Lee, PhD Candidate, of the Department of Radio-Television-Film, The University of Texas at Austin, Facebook makes us more social.
As noted by The New York “Fashion & Style” section, in their 36-page report, Lee and Watkins conclude that “Facebook makes people more social in their lives offline.” That’s interesting; all people?
Well, no, not really. “900 current and recent college graduates nationwide” were surveyed in an examination of “the impact of Facebook on users’ social lives.” The researchers conclude, “social media afford opportunities for new expressions of friendship, intimacy and community.” The last time I scanned my group of Facebook “friends,” I noticed that not all were college graduates, or for that matter real people. For example, I seem to have a lot of friends who are dead celebrities, and they all have a lot of friends, too. As for the college graduates in my “network,” not too many of them qualify as “recent.” (Although I must question the difference between “current” college grads and “recent” college grads. No matter when one received the sheepskin, a graduate is a graduate, therefore current—unless dead. “Recent” grads are members of the “current” group. Does “current” here mean “about-to-be”?)
As it turns out, I’ve wasted my conjecture, because it’s the NYT who labeled those surveyed as current and recent grads; Lee and Watkins list them as “Current college students” and “Recent college graduates.” Those in the 18-25 age range made up 54.5% of the survey’s sample, but 18-24-year-olds make up about a quarter of Facebook users (Source: istrategy labs). Another quarter of Facebook users are 25-34, approximately 30% are 35-54 years old, and nearly 10% are over 55. Since Watkins and Lee divided age-groups differently, it is hard to make an in-depth comparison, but it should be safe to say that their respondents did not comprise a representative sample of Facebook users, and their conclusions apply to the percentage of that quarter of Facebook users who hold or are working on college degrees.
Are you confused yet? Don’t be, because I have come to dispute Lee and Watkins, not to bury them. With all the ink and kilobytes taken up discussing social networks, somehow many pundits ignore the fact that such networks also contribute to asocial and antisocial behavior. Facebook does allow a vast pool of “friends” (as long as one doesn’t have more than 5000), but it also allows “friendship” without being a true friend. For example, when a person who daily participates in an app for months or more then suddenly stops, is that person missed or mourned? Does the group with which they interacted become concerned and attempt to ascertain what happened? Empirical evidence says “no.” Depending on the size of that person’s network, there may be a few who ask, “whatever happened to so-and-so,” but the inquiry usually ends with the response “I don’t know” or something similar.

While younger, college-educated users may increase their social skills through use of social networks (it’s certainly conceivable), the quality of those social interactions is questionable. Facebook gives people the opportunity to have relationships without emotional investment. One can have regular discourse with hundreds of people while never having to (ugh!) be in their physical presence or (ick!) care about them or their problems. For every actual friendship that develops, how many people sit at computers enjoying one of the benefits of having a friend—someone to talk to—but none of the detriments? It’s called virtual life, and it’s life-lite—life without sharp edges, painful losses, and emotional commitment.
Yes, there are people who feel a connection to those with whom they “socialize,” but connection and commitment are not the same thing. There are people who get their feelings hurt over poorly worded status updates and comments, who feel “joy” at someone else’s good news and “sorrow” at bad, but aren’t these fleeting feelings? The more important question, though, is “If people enjoy non-involving relationships on-line, will their behavior extend to real-life relationships?” Will actual person-to-person interactions eventually be limited to superficiality? If social networks give us the opportunity to experience the luxury of “not caring,” why wouldn’t we adapt that attitude to real life, as well? In some ways, things could be a lot simpler.

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