Three researchers at Michigan State University (Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe) have published The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.
The study purports to find that (at least on MSU campus), more Facebook use is associated with higher levels of social capital, but especially useful for maintaing social ties to high school friends and to building bridging social capital. I’m less persuaded by these latter two findings. For “maintained social capital” all the reports of “maintaining social ties” that they use are self-reports and more hypothetical and less behavioral. So the study asks whether you would have a person you could stay with from high school rather than how many times in the last year (if ever) you did so. I think the measures encourage inflated perceptions of whether e-connections are valuable, without any tethering to real world behavior to test whether these inflated perceptions are valid. I’ve written earlier on how Facebook can cheapen the currency of “friendship” and simply calling someone a friend doesn’t necessarily afford the same benefits as comes with friends made off-line.
“Bridging” social capital in the study really just means an imagined connection with the MSU community and the ability to make new friends. I would find the results more powerful if the questions referred to actual friendship networks with people who were different than the respondent (with regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) or questions on trust of different ethnic groups as we’ve done in our 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Even in our surveying where we ask people how many close personal friends they have who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. we find that people enlarge their circle of “close” friends to find bridging relationships. So we know already that there is response desirability (people want to be able to report bridging relationships) and this tendency is fueled by loosely worded questions. I’m confident that people using the Internet think it increases their social bridges (the folk wisdom that “the Internet brings us all together”), so it requires more tightly worded questions to sort out fizzle from fact.
One of the more interesting findings from the paper was their finding, contrary to some of the “rich get richer” Meetup analysis I have done about what type of users benefit from participating in Meetup, was that the “poor get richer” through Facebook. [They use the terms slightly differently than I did; I was referring to people who were richer in "social capital" (already more socially connected) benefitting more than the people who were less connected. By the "poor get richer", they mean that those with lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, may show the biggest gains by using Facebook more.] Nevertheless, the finding is still interesting.
Conclusion: it’s more serious research than I’ve seen on Facebook, but still leaves me hungering for better measures that are more behavioral and less ethereal.
Postscript: There is an interesting, more rigorous study of Facebook by Nicholas Christakis and Jason Kauffman at Harvard, but the results for now are largely limited to verifying homophily (the fact that “birds of a feather flock together”) on Facebook.