Social networking: a social “eden” or dystopian tool?

Freakonomics convenes an e-forum of various researchers of the social effects of social networking sites. As we’ve noted on this site, research on the social impact of these sites is still in its infancy, and we’ve blogged before on what’s interesting and the limitations of Nicole Ellison’s MSU study. On balance, most of the researchers see that there will be both desirable and undesirable byproducts of these social networks.

I agreed with some of the interesting comments of Will Reader (we blogged about his study earlier): “Some doom-mongers have suggested that social networking technologies will eventually lead to a society in which we no longer engage in face-to-face contact with people. I don’t see it. Face-to-face contact is, I believe, very important for the formation of intimate relationships (and most of us crave those).” But since close friendships require large investments of our time and emotion, we want to make sure that others are worth this investment, and non-verbal cues obtained from face-to-face interactions are one of the best ways to gauge this.

Reader notes that “talk is cheap” on social networks. “Anyone can post “u r cool” on someone’s “wall,” or “poke” them on Facebook, but genuine smiles and laughs are a much more reliable indicators of someone’s suitability as a faithful friend….To return to the notion of social capital, we know that people are increasingly “meeting” people on social network sites before they meet them face to face. As a result of this, when many students begin university, they find themselves with a group of ready-made acquaintances. Given people’s preferences for people who are like them, it could be that friendship networks become increasingly homogeneous. Is this a bad thing? It might be if, by choosing potential friends via their Facebook profiles, it means that folk cut themselves off from serendipitous encounters with those who are superficially different from them, ethnically, socio-economically, and even in terms of musical taste.”

Reader believes that social networking will change our society but one’s own preferences will dictate whether it is a utopian or dystopian future.

We’ve written earlier about how the Internet is an especially efficient way to maintain social ties that were made face-to-face, but Reader is undoubtedly true, that for geographically based networks (like Facebook, generally centered on college campuses), Facebook activity prior to coming to college campuses may accelerate the process of making new friends and may also exacerbate our tendency to form bonding friendships at the expense of bridging.

And Judith Donath makes the point that we have made earlier that social networking sites often “cheapen” the currency of friendships.

See whole forum here. [Freakonomics asked Martin Baily, Danah Boyd, Steve Chazin, Judith Donath, Nicole Ellison, and William Reader:" Has social networking technology (blog-friendly phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) made us better or worse off as a society, either from an economic, psychological, or sociological perspective?"]

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One response to “Social networking: a social “eden” or dystopian tool?

  1. We define social network sites as a webbased service that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site

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