Does Facebook hurt or help you form close friendships? Does social networking take away from the quality of your "real" social interaction? Or does it enhance it?
A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life center, "Social networking sites and our lives" concludes that "Facebook users have more social support..compared with Americans of a similar age and education." It looked at number of people in a social network and how people valued their relationships including the amount of support they received from friends.
"People receive a wide range of support from their social networks. This includes emotional support; such as offering advice, information, and understanding; companionship; such as having people available to spend time with; andinstrumental or tangible support, such as having someone to help you if you are sick in bed." Social media users overall reported higher levels of support across all types. They also reported higher numbers of friends across all types of social media. The increase in levels of social support was about half the amount of increase provided by being married or living with a committed partner.
The fear about social media is that it replaces the human connection, that in-person relationships are ignored as online relationships are nurtured. Of course, that is possible in individual cases. It is quite annoying to make the time to spend an evening with friends and have someone neglect the company while they use their phone to connect with their on-line social networks. We've all heard stories about infidelities coordinated through social media. But the majority of those who use social media seem to be building stronger friendships through the tools provided by these networks.
From what I have observed among my own social media interactions, social media allows me to reconnect with friends from previous jobs, schools or previous cities. The hassles of being far away are erased when they can share their daily life, photos or opinions across our interlocking networks. I've found that I like my best friends in college just as much now as I did then, even if we cannot have those intense after midnight philosophy sessions or shared vacations. Facebook allows me to connect across time zones, many miles and through the time crunch that we all face in living our busy lives.
Other social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn provide different types of connection. I use Twitter to follow news in my various fields of interest and to gain the insights of trusted 'curators' on everything from the silly, the sad, the profound and the mundane. LinkedIn serves as a way to keep connected with my professional contacts and to keep up with industry specific news.
What has been your experience? Do find that your 'friends' on Facebook are truly friends? For me, I think I would not be able to count so many people as friends if I didn't have Facebook to keep up the conversation. In an area that is not only so highly mobile (people coming and going) but also so highly congested (which makes visiting friends around the region difficult), social media helps me plan get togethers that can be reported on after the fact with out of town friends.
I was doubtful initially that connecting online would be rewarding. I saw my teenagers online interactions as somehow inferior to the offline ones. I learned, however, that these are not separate experiences, they support each other. When I was in high school summer vacations would mean separation from my social circle because I attended a school that wasn't in my neighborhood. Going off to college meant leaving some friendships behind. My kids will not experience this as greatly as I did because they can still keep up with their peers via social networks, Skype, online gaming and text messaging. In person connections are still important, but the friendships aren't reliant on them alone.