10 July 2010 | NewScientist | 39
Tools like Facebook are transforming our lives in surprising ways, discovers Richard Fisher
NOTHING personal, but I dont really want to be your online friend. Im sorry, Im sure you are very nice. Its not you, its me: Im feeling grumpy and a tad antisocial, so perhaps we are all better off.
And that goes for you too, annoying ex-classmate who just friended me on Facebook. Get lost, media-type I met at a party; your all-too-frequent status updates are pretentious. Trusted colleague, please stop judging my professionalism by the posts on my wall. And mother, you know I love you, but instead of getting upset, please just stop looking at my late-night pub photos.
It may come as no surprise that I have been having second thoughts about online social networking. Anecdotally at least, cutting the cord may be the healthy way to go. My wife shunned such networks from the start and yet has so far managed to avoid becoming a social pariah (between us, this has had an upside: up until now she has been blissfully unaware that an ex-girlfriend friended me last year). In short, what started out as a fun way to keep up with friends is now stressing me out.
For many of us 400 million worldwide so far and counting online networking has become enmeshed in our daily lives. It has transformed our social structures and behaviour. Research tracking our habits on these sites is only just emerging, and its conclusions have come as a surprise to cynics like me. It seems these tools are altering our influence over others, improving our chances of professional success and even making us happier. Could the benefits of social networking be too good to miss out on?
A decades-old insight from a study of traditional social networks illuminates one of the most important aspects of todays
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online social networking. In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter showed how the loose acquaintances, or weak ties, in our social network punch far above their weight in their influence over our behaviour and choices (American Journal of Sociology, vol 78, p 1360). Granovetter found that a significant percentage of people get their jobs as a result of information provided by a weak tie. Subsequent studies have revealed that weak ties benefit our health and happiness. Granovetter suggested that this is because these friends-of-friends arent like you, yet they are likely to be similar enough in social outlook and personal interests to have a positive influence.
Today, our number of weak-tie acquaintances has exploded via online social networking. You couldnt maintain all of those weak ties on your own, says Jennifer Golbeck at the University of Maryland in College Park, who studies our use of social media. Facebook gives you a way of cataloguing. The result? Its now significantly easier for the school friend you havent seen in years to feed you a bit of information that changes your behaviour, from a recommendation of a low-cholesterol breakfast cereal to a party invite where you meet the love of your life.
The explosion of weak ties could have profound consequences for our social structures too, says Judith Donath of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, who studies the various ways we communicate using social media. One thing that limited the size of traditional social groups was the time it took to form reliable and trustworthy ties, she says. Online tools have changed that, helping each of us to build a social supernet: a network of easily accessible contacts that is bigger than any we have ever been able to manage. It would be impossible to maintain 500 or 5000 ties without it, she says. Were already seeing changes. For example, many people now turn to their social networks ahead of sources such as newspapers or television, because their acquaintances provide them with more trusted and relevant news, information or recommendations. However, Donath believes more should be done to maintain privacy and trust in the networking tools.
If these supernets continue to thrive and grow, they could fundamentally change the way we share information about the world
and transform our notions of friendship and acquaintance. If so, says Donath, the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace might just turn out to be the harbingers of a sea change in our social evolution, in the same way that the arrival of language transformed our ancestors (Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 13, p 231).
The magic numberBut are these huge networks really that relevant to us on a personal level? Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford, wrote the book How Many Friends Does One Person Need?. In it, he argues that our primate brains place a cap on the number of genuine social relationships we can actually maintain: roughly 150. We simply dont have the cognitive capacity or time for any more, he says.
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How much do you socialise online rather than face-to-face?
Online social networking appears to be very good for servicing relationships, but not for building them de novo, says Dunbar. He argues that our evolutionary roots mean we still depend heavily on physical and face-to-face contact to be able to develop ties.
Nonetheless, there is evidence that online networking can transform our daily interactions. Jeff Hancock of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, decided to test what effect sharing personal information online has on your chances of being liked. He asked participants in an experiment to try to encourage other members of the trial to like them via an instant-messaging conversation. Beforehand, some participants were allowed to view the Facebook profiles of the person they were trying to win over. He found that those with Facebook access asked questions to which they already knew the answers or raised things they had in common, and as a result
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were much more successful at winning people over. He concluded that people who use these sites to keep updated on the lives of their acquaintances are more likely to be liked in subsequent social interactions (Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, p 413).
Social networking may also have tangible effects on our well-being. In two studies of college students, Nicole Ellison of Michigan State University in East Lansing and colleagues found that the frequency of Facebook use correlates with greater self-esteem. Support and affirmation from the weak ties could be the explanation, says Ellison. Asking your friends for help or advice is nothing new, but we are seeing a lowering of barriers among acquaintances, she says. People are readily sharing personal feelings and experiences to a wider group of people than they might once have done (Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 12, p 1143).
Facebooks own researchers found the same correlation between subjective well-being and site use when they surveyed 1200 of their members last year and compared their answers with evidence of use, such as their clicks on Facebook-hosted news stories, their number of friends, and wall posts received. The company presented its results at the Human Factors in Computing Systems meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in April. Ellison cautions that in both of these studies, the correlation doesnt prove that using Facebook is the cause of well-being.
Sandy Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who analyses technology-based social interactions, says it is likely there is a causal link. The ability to broadcast to our social group means we need never feel alone, he says. The things that befall us are often due to a lack of social support. Theres more of a safety net now.
Be more influentialHenry Holtzman, also at MIT, who studies the interface between online social networking and the real world, points out that increased visibility also means our various social spheres family, work and friends are merging and so we will have to prepare for new societal norms. Well have to learn how to live a more transparent life, he says. We may have to give up some ability to show very limited glimpses of ourselves to others. I discovered this myself when my New Scientist colleagues discovered that I have a peculiar affection for golden retrievers
dressed up as subatomic particles (dont ask), and visiting Disneyworld.
Another way that social networking appears to be changing our social structures is through power and influence. In behaviour experiments in the laboratory, Michael Kearns at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found hints that being better connected can give an individual apparently disproportionate influence. In one experiment with 30 volunteers, he asked people to quickly reach consensus in an online game over a choice between two colours. The participants only means of communication was the ability to see the colour chosen by some of the other participants. They had a minute to reach consensus, and failure to agree on a common colour meant losing a prize. The twist was that he offered different financial incentives to each participant so that they would try to persuade the group to pick one or the other colour. But some had an extra advantage: the ability to see more of the participants chosen colours than others.
Kearns ran many variations of the experiment, and every time he found that the people who could see the choices of more participants (in other words, were better connected) persuaded the group to pick their colour: even when they had to persuade the vast majority to give up their incentive. While Kearns cautions that the setting was artificial, he says its possible that great influence could lie with well-connected individuals in the real online world too (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 106, p 1347).
Hints about the origin of this influence come from a study by Stephanie Tom Tong of Michigan State University, and colleagues, who found that online popularity is related to your number of online friends. They asked Facebook users to rate the social attractiveness of the profiles of others, which differed only in the number of visible friends. The researchers found that people with about 300 friends were rated as the most appealing, any more than that and their social attractiveness began to drop off (Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 13, p 531). The average number of Facebook friends is 130, according to the websites owners, which is not too far from Dunbars hypothesised 150.
In which case, maybe I should be expanding my social network rather than unfriending my weak ties. Want to be friends? n
Richard Fisher is the deputy news editor of New Scientist
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People who use these sites are more likely to be liked in subsequent social interactions
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GenerationThe magic numberBe more influential