Monthly Archives: March 2010

Who Makes New Friends Online? (Guess again)

My paper on who makes new friends through social media got accepted to the 4th  International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. The full paper, Who Acquires Friends Through Social Media and Why? “Rich Get Richer” versus “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” can be found here.

In this study, I examined whether acquiring new friends through online interaction fit a “Rich get Richer” or a “Social Compensation” model. In other words, are the naturally gregarious making new friends online, or does the Internet allow the introverted catch-up? According to my data, neither seems to be the case. The odds of making new friends online is not related to being in either group.  On the other hand, the population in my study was almost evenly divided between those who absolutely must look someone in the eye, directly, before they can feel a connection and those who feel the opportunity to communicate without the burdens of appearance to be liberating and more conducive to bonding. It was people with that latter disposition who were more likely to make new friends online, and whether one was in this group was simply not related to number of friends in the offline world.  Thus, “Seek and Ye Shall Find.” As I said in my abstract:

This study contradicts the idea that people who are more social offline are more social online, as well as the notion that it is only the social misfits who use social media to make new friends as there was no difference in the number of offline friends between those who made new friends online and those who did not.

The quality of social interaction over the Internet seems always to give rise to heated debate. It’s clear that a lot of people find mediated communication to be lacking. On the other hand, the way we live now necessitates that a good portion of our sociality is not conducted face-to-face. Obviously, This is not a 21st century phenomenon either. It starts with the earliest separation of the message from the messenger: writing. Plato famously lamented the invention of the  writing as complained that  ”once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it.”  He found written material to be  a “ghost” of the original, devoid of the “genuine knowledge in the soul of the learner.”  Indeed, you cannot look a sentence in the eye. Or, can we? We have millennia of passionate, soulful, brilliant writing that evokes awe and deep feelings among generation after generation of readers.

This study contradicts the idea that people who are more social offline are more social online, as well as the notion that it is only the social misfits who use social media to make new friends as there was no difference in the number of offline friends between those who made new friends online and those who did not.

With those questions in mind, I conducted a survey which asked 817 students whether they thought one could become friends with someone they met online, and also whether they themselves had made a friend that way. I also asked  about their offline sociality — how many friends they regularly spent time with.  I asked them, qualitatively, to expand upon their answers because I wanted to go beyond the yes/no dichotomy.

The results were quite surprising. First about half the population thinks it is possible to make online friends, while the other half strongly disagrees. This was a rolling sample lasting a little more than a year and the proportion was remarkably stable from semester to semester, suggesting a stable trait. And making friends online was not correlated with offline sociality, i.e. how many friends a person had in the physical world. Unsurprisingly, amount of time on the Internet in general did not matter, but amount of time on social networking sites did.  With the exception of race, which I will talk about in a moment, what mattered most was whether people believed in the possibility of such friendships. And best I can tell, this wasn’t just a post-hoc effect either, i.e. people who found such friendships then developing this belief as only 10 percent of the “believers” indicated having witnessed such friendships as the reason for their conviction. Analysis of the reasons why people felt the way they did revealed some fascinating results. Potential for deceit and lack of face-to-face communication was the main turn-off for the “doubters.” That much is unsurprising.  However, I found the reasons brought up by the “believers” in online friendship to be very interesting. They mostly emphasized that lack of face-to-face communication made for better, deeper connections. This harkens back to a theory developed by Joe Walther called hyperpersonal communication. Basically, Walther argued that the lack of visual cues and immediate co-presence can be a plus for developing intimacy. We are not distracted by appearances, we can give the benefit of the doubt to the other person, we can reflect and be more thoughtful in our self-presentation, and we thus can find ourselves in a virtuous cycle where we can bond more easily with the other person. As I said in my paper:

Those who emphasized the “hyperpersonal” characteristics of online sociality did not appear to view them as either inferior or as substitutes for lack of offline skills, but rather as a form of communication that spotlighted a different kind of interaction, one based on conversation and sharing of thoughts rather than being judged on physical appearances. Although many online interactions include awareness of physical appearance through pictures, it seems that the word can be more important when physical copresence is not an option. The prevalence of responses indicating the “hyperpersonal” nature of cyberspace as an affordance of close friendship suggests that this factor has not faded from importance even though the Internet has changed greatly since it was first proposed by Walther (1996). The results indicate that that some young people are still looking for refuge from the demands of physical appearance and are seeking to make deep connections through conversations. On the other hand, there is a group of people who absolutely cannot imagine intimacy or close social interactions unless they are regularly in the corporeal copresence of the other person.

Well, plus ça change… The Internet has changed dramatically since Walther’s original 1996 paper, but it seems that for some, mediated sociality retains its character of being a refuge from demands of appearance and remains a place for more thoughtful, considered interaction. So, rather than a rich get richer or social compensation, it seems that making friends online is just … different.

Finally, the only other variable that jumped out in my analyses was whether the respondent was an African-American. All else equal, Black students were a lot more likely acquire new online friends compared to their White counterparts.  (I ran logistic regressions so I am controlling for variables such as age, gender, time spent online, time spent on social networking sites, years they have been on the Internet, number of offline friends — this is an all-else-equals model). Since I don’t know the character of these new friends, I can’t really be sure what’s going on but it is certainly intriguing.  Are Black people more likely to use new media to connect with other Black people they otherwise don’t know? Given the continuing dominance of spatial segregation in the United States, could this be a way to diversify one’s network? I can’t tell from just this data.

I will present my paper at the 4th ICWSM conference on May 24th. I am definitely looking forward to talking about all these issues and get feedback and ideas from my co-panelists and the audience.