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.
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.