Are you on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter or any other of the hundreds of social-networking sites? Great, aren’t they? I have a friend who’s a social network addict. Yep, that’s right, barely an hour goes by without a status update on Twitter, now synched with their Facebook profile, killing two birds with one stone. Twitter stream? More like a torrent. It frequently goes something like this:
7.15 am having trouble getting up
9.02 am is listening to Money, Money, Money by Kevin Ayers on my iPod
9.48 am looking at my To Do list and thinking hell’s bells…
10.12 am Drinking 3rd coffee of the day, waiting for new stock to arrive
10.25am thinking about lunch already. Wish I hadn’t had that 3rd cup of coffee
10.43 am Anyone know when new stock is arriving? Started next weeks production planning schedule instead.
You get the picture. It’s like this every day. I’m going to have to stop following Chris soon; it’s taking up too much of my time.
Aside from the very pertinent question “How does Chris fit in any work?” the social-networking cynics amongst you might be wondering what the point of it is. I’d include my brother-in-law in that category. He’s no Luddite or techno-phobe, having bought into the value of business blogging a few years ago, but the purpose of social networking generally, and Twitter in particular, continues to evade him. “It should be called Twatter, not Twitter,” he said, in his typical forthright fashion.
It’s worth mentioning that the social networking phenomenon has come in for some criticism from several UK-based psychologists recently. Apparently it’s detrimental to both physical and psychological health and well-being. Dr Oliver James (discoverer of Affluenza) was quoted in the Times as follows:
“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”.
This is James’s professional opinion, I don’t think any studies have been carried out on the psychological identity of Twitter users yet. Maybe for some (many?) Twitter users, James is right – if they simply stick to the Twitter question “What are you doing?”, their Tweets are quite likely to resemble a stream of (un)consciousness capable of rivaling Proust or Kerouac. Whether that’s beneficial for them or anyone else is unknown.
But perhaps the issue is not as straightforward as all that. Many Twitter users aren’t actually using it in the way that James suggests; they don’t answer the question “What are you doing?” at all. They’re adapting the medium, using it far more for 1-to-1 or 1-to-many exchange of ideas, information, web links, and dialogue, both public and private.
Research specifically on the impact of Twitter is pretty rare although there’s a great deal about the internet, human communication over the internet (a.k.a. computer-mediated communication or CMC), and increasingly about social networking generally. As far as questions of the self and identity in relation to the web are concerned, other psychologists such as Adam Joinson, have suggested that internet use might actually enable us to create hoped-for, possible selves in our real lives:
“…for someone with a hoped-for possible self that receives some validation on-line, it is possible that this bolsters their attempts to achieve the possible self off-line too.”
At the same time that James’s condemnation of Twitter and its users was published, the BBC reported Dr Aric Sigman’s research, which showed that a lack of face-to-face contact could have a physical effect on the human body and the way it develops, for example, altering hormone levels. Sigman argued that the time we spend communicating online is time that previously would have been spent in face-to-face interaction, and that as a result, the adaptive processes that would have been triggered in the human body are not occurring.
This resulted in headlines such as “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer”, and the less sensational but equally worrying “Britons’ health at risk from time spent in virtual worlds”. In fact, Sigman’s paper doesn’t even mention Facebook or Twitter, and isn’t based on any experiments on the impact of social networking; the conclusion that we should all avoid it seems to come from one study carried out in 1998, (i.e. well before social networks appeared), which was misreported at the time, and has since been updated with much more positive data.
So far, so gloomy. Surely there must be some positive psychology attached to social networking. For a start, what about the creation of new friendships?
What’s the Magic Number?
OK let’s turn to the question of friends. You may be skeptical about the quantity of Facebook friends or Twitter followers that some users accumulate. Surely it’s impossible to know that many people, you say! In the 1990s, well before the advent of online social networking, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that, from an evolutionary perspective, the optimum number of social contacts for any one person is 150; after that, he claimed, networks start to disintegrate.
On Facebook, the average number of friends is said to be around 200-250, with some people amassing thousands. Hmmm. What should we make of that? Does acquiring new Facebook friends (or Twitter followers) or having more friends than your friends make you happy? What, if anything, can we say about a person’s well-being from the size of their virtual address book?
When weakness is a strength
Typically we think that strong ties (the type you have with close friends) are better or more valuable than weak ties (the type you have with acquaintances). “The strength of a tie is characterised by a combination of time commitment, emotional intensity and intimacy (mutual confiding) and reciprocal services.” So the more time, emotion, intimacy etc involved, the stronger the tie. It’s highly unlikely that any one person can have a close relationship with hundreds of Facebook friends though. Many will be mere acquaintances rather than lifelong confidants with whom we’d share our innermost secrets. Common sense tells us that in all likelihood, the people that you’d count on as ‘real’ friends, those you would turn to in a crisis for instance, probably number less than five. So does that mean that all our other Facebook friendships are fake or worthless?
This is where the theory of the “strength of weak ties” comes in. Professor Mark Granovetter of Stanford University suggests that, paradoxically, weak ties can be more beneficial than strong ones, in some circumstances. This is how it works. Our acquaintances move in slightly different social circles to us, and thus have access to different (and potentially superior) information and resources than our close ties have, and so can provide us with a different (and potentially superior) kind of support. A sprawling, loosely-knit network of friends and acquaintances can be beneficial. So having a great many Facebook or Twitter friendships based on weak ties is certainly not to be sniffed at, if anything it makes sense to use social networks to create as many new connections as you can.
So how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers have you got? In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just log on, update my status and add a few more…
Passmore, J. & Grenville-Cleave, B. (2009). The Facebook Manager: The Power of Web-based Networking to Transform Your Performance and Career. Management Books 2000 LTD. (Added later)
Dunbar, R. (2014). Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind. Thames and Hudson. (Added later)
James, (2008). The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza. Vermilion.
Joinson, A.N (2003). Understanding the Psychology of Internet Behaviour: Virtual Worlds, Real Lives. London. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sigman, A. (2009). Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking’. Biologist, 56(1), 14-20.
Britons’ health at risk from time spent in virtual worlds, says Dr Aric Sigman. Daily Telegraph.
How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer. Daily Mail.
Kraut, R. Patterson, M, Lundmark, V, Kiesler, S., Tridas, M. & Scherlis, W. (1998) Internet paradox: a social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? Amercian Psychologist, 53, 1017-31.
Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78( 6), 1360-1380.
Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 201-233.
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Very interesting and timely, BG-C. I love how you address this social-networking phenomenon–a reality that we can’t escape. Excuse me too while I go tweet…LJA
Thanks for your article Bridget!
This is an inspiring piece about social networking and facebook.
Hi there Louis
Thanks for your comments. You’re right, I think those who think they can avoid social networking are sticking their heads in the sand. And those who want to stop it need to do better than create sensationlist media headlines – what I’ve learnt from writing this month’s psting is that the communication of science is an art in itself….
Thank you too! The other thing I learnt from researching this piece is that nothing is ever all good or all bad, it all depends on your viewpoint. Well, with the exception of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, that is…
The trouble is that “everything in moderation” sounds like a pretty dull way to live your life!
Wonderful, timely article. Obviously social networking needs more research. It seems that there are strong opinions on both sides of this argument. However, I might posit that we need to err on the side of intimate human contact rather than electronic means. Reading George Valliant on love and Barbara Fredrickson on positive emotions I think the weight falls heavily on the side of personal interaction.
After a wonderful dinner with friends the other night I came home and connected with some other friends in Australia. Though both were pleasant, I felt a whole different sense of well-being from the dinner.
The positive of social networking, it seems, comes in the form of broadening your connections and benefiting from the broadening, as Professor Granovetter put it. I would agree with that benefit. But when weighed side by side I’d rather be face to face than tweeting with a friend.
Thanks for the thoughtful article.
Thanks for your comments. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. In no way can online contact make up for the real thing, but I love the fact that it’s so easy to connect with people right across the world. As long as we make sure that the face-to-face stuff isn’t obscured by the online stuff.
There is a big questionmark, however, over the advisability of allowing young children to use social networks (which apparently is becoming more common), because of the fact that to learn non-verbal cues, you need to see & talk to people in person. But that’s another story.
This is a really interesting topic. I recently read Wayne Baker’s book called Achieving Success Through Social Capital, and I have next on my to-read list a book called Driving Results Through Social Networks. Baker corroborates the ideas that you outlined in your article – the power of the weak tie – showing that those people who are linked to many different groups of people often hold a lot of power to influence. They connect people with other people in very beneficial ways. Baker is not advocating that we replace deep human contact with online “twatter,” but we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
One other comment that I would make anecdotally is that I have reflected recently on the kinds of connections I have been able to create and maintain through virtual means. I am connected with people throughout the globe – people who I would have no contact with were it not for email. My best friend lives in Chicago and I’m in Philly and, although we visit each other as often as we can, our relationship is largely maintained through phone conversation. We have sometimes marveled at the fact that talking on the phone really is almost as good as talking in person (in some ways it’s even better). We have also wondered about the cultural shift in the movement to online conversations. When people first began having phone conversations, way back when, their aim was probably to simply convey basic information. Now talking on the phone is often a highly nuanced social exchange. I can see this shift happening with online networking capabilities as well. It’s really exciting, especially when I take note of the people I have become friends with (and, yes, I really consider them friends) through virtual means over the last year. Again, what’s baby and what’s bathwater?
Oh, the authors of Driving Results Through Social Networks are Rob Cross and Robert J. Thomas.
Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post. I have to agree that, although I am on Facebook, I am in Scott’s camp here. I work with kids for a living, and one of the most distressing conversations I had was with an 8th grader (13 yr. old) about Facebook.
The last time I had seen Bright (the 8th Grader) she had been having a hard time and at the end of the lesson I gave her a hug. The next time I saw her she had decided to write her public speaking speech on the advantages of Facebook, including connecting with family and friends in far away places, etc. For an 8th Grader, Facebook presents more problems, because someone posting “naughty” pictures of you can get you in trouble with school or parents, so she cited that as the drawback.
Then I stopped Bright and asked her, “Wait, there is one more thing you can’t do on Facebook.”
“What?” she asked
“Think about it Bright. What did we do at the end of our last lesson?”
Bright thought about it a minute, looked puzzled and then smiled and asked, “Hug?”
“Yep,” I said.
“No,” she said to me adamantly. “You can send hugs on Facebook!”
Bright was right. I had even sent and received hugs on Facebook, so I could not plead ignorance. But I realized that Bright and I now come from two different worlds. I would not exchange a real hug from a real human being for anything. And as we may remember, hormones like oxytocin and other goodies are pumped into our bloodstream when we interact and attach with one another. This is an important thing, not only for our biology but for our souls.
I agree that it has been nice using Facebook to get reacquainted with frieds who I lost 20 years ago. But the part that has has been really gratifying has been meeting them for a cup of coffee, seeing how they look now (not just a picture, but the way their face moves when they talk) and HUGGING them. Just as I love NING, but staring at my screen just ain’t the same energy as being in a room of positive psychologists.
Facebook does serve a purpose. But if Bright and her contemporaries never learn (or never acknowledge) that real hugs are more valuable, rewarding and electrifying for their souls than virtual hugs, I am convinced society will suffer extreme losses.
Again, thank you for your post and sorry for the soapbox……
Love this article, Bridget.
Did you see that the current issue of the Economist – page 84 – that describes the 150 Dunbar number and facebook phenomenon?
Like in your money/freedom/happiness article, I really like that you take one point of view (facebook makes us only distantly connected) and contrast it with another (weak connections may be beneficial).
It has been so many times that a weak connection has been effective. For example, I was having coffee with a new friend on Friday, and we were talking education, but it just made sense for us to introduce our contacts to each other: a woman who’s involved in the green business and two men who are involved with crew and positive work environments. Those more distant contacts are weak ties to the other one of us – like my green business friend is a weak tie to my education new friend, and what if? That’s the cool thing – what if it works as a useful connection? Isn’t that the point of aimless networking, a wonderful term I’ve discussed often with Emma Judge that she may have coined.
Aren, I loved your thoughts here. I agree. Nothing replaces actual real hugging. I went to a Josh Ritter concert last week. He hugs his fans afterwards. It’s great. I also loved how you made her think about it! “What’s different about the interaction? Oh yes, that hug part!”
I think this is my chattiest comment ever!
Thank you for your comments. I think you are right to say that social networking technology is merely a tool, which can be used to good effect, or not. It’s really what we do with it that matters.
I find it fascinating that relationships can develop much more quickly online than face-to-face (to do with anonymity, disclosure, identity etc). This is one of the reasons why I think organisations would do better to consider how to use social networking to their advantage, rather than to ban their staff from using Facebook. I believe social networking has an enormous potential for good, but there are also downsides, as Aren mentions in the next comment.
Thanks also for the book references, I’ll look them up.
You make a crucial point here, about young kids using social networking (my article was really talking about adults). I think there is quite rightly a concern about how children use social networking, and the impact this has, e.g. on their ability to learn non-verbal social cues, never mind the question about real hugs vs virtual ones. I don’t know if there is any research on real vs virtual hugs, but that would be very interesting! As with all things in life, it seems that moderation is key.
Aren – sorry I forgot to add my thanks!
Thanks for your chatty comment! A colleague also just mentioned the Economist article to me, and I was intrigued that they had also mentioned Dunbar. That’s what is so exciting about Pos Psych – there are so many different disciplines that can be connected.
I love the idea of aimless networking too, looking out for random connections. Reminds me of that ice-breaker where you have two minutes to find a connection between you and the person you’ve met – maybe you have the same hobby, were born in the same town, went to the same University, have the same second name, and so on. It can be great fun.