How technology affects friendships

The Economist has an interesting set of stories this week on the relationship of technology to social capital.

They note that these smaller mini-connections with friends and family throughout the day using cellphones, texting, IM, etc. keep us more connected to kith and kin, at the cost of our connections with strangers — the latter potentially a cohesive glue that holds society together. There is also some question whether the continuing ties of adolescents to their parents through cellphones is retarding adolescence. The article discusses how new technology is changing dating rituals in Japan.

There is also an interesting conversation about how it is changing etiquette. They note a huge gradient in the US by age about whether using cellphones in public is a major irritation with 74% of those over age 60 saying yes, and only 32% of those ages 18-27 agreeing.

Excerpt: “Trickier etiquette problems arise when the issue is not so much noise as context. One example that will enter the history books occurred last September when Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, was still waging a vigorous campaign for the presidency. As he was up on his podium and in mid-sentence addressing the National Rifle Association (NRA), a crucial constituency for a Republican candidate, his mobile rang and, to gasps in the huge audience, he decided to answer it. What followed, captured on microphone, is worth repeating in its banality: “Hello, dear. I’m talking, I’m talking to the members of the NRA right now. Would you like to say hello? I love you, and I’ll give you a call as soon as I’m finished. OK? OK, have a safe trip. Bye-bye. Talk to you later, dear. I love you.” When he hung up, the audience had turned to stone.

“Usually the situation is subtler and the incongruence has more to do with attention. This can be true even during silent mobile communications. It is now routine for university students to text, e-mail and instant-message during lectures. Mr Ling, whose job includes loitering in public places for observation, watched a woman at an Oslo underground station who texted as she walked. She was wholly focused on her text message but had to look up occasionally to weave through the crowds on the platform. Other people were doing the same. It was an “atomised and individualised” scene, says Mr Ling: a new form of the proverbial lonely crowd.

“But at least this particular Norwegian woman was signalling through her body language to all around her that she wanted to be left alone. The spread of “hands-free” Bluetooth devices, with hidden earplugs seemingly attached to nothing, is removing even those clues. Steve Love, a psychologist, was travelling on a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow once when a girl standing next to him started talking to him. She asked him how he was and how his day had been, and Mr Love, though a bit shy, politely told her how much he was looking forward to watching Scotland play football that evening. As he spoke, the girl looked at him in horror, then turned away. Only then did Mr Love hear her say “OK, I’ll call you later.” Not a word or gesture was exchanged for the remainder of the (suddenly uncomfortable) journey.

“Probably the single most common etiquette conflict occurs, as Mr Ling puts it, when mediated communication interrupts co-present communication, as when two or more people are sitting at a table in conversation or negotiation and one of them gets, and answers, a call. The other co-present people must now keep themselves busy while seeming nonchalant. What is more, they must pretend not to be eavesdropping even though they are only a few feet away from the mediated conversation, ideally by assuming a pose of concentration on some other object, such as their fingernails or their own phone. As soon as the intervening call ends, everybody must try to re-enter the co-present context as gracefully as possible.

“So there is evidence that nomadism is good for in-groups, but at the expense of strangers. If that is true, Mr Granovetter would consider it bad for society. Fortunately, however, the last chapter has not yet been written. Since the outburst of pessimism about the internet among sociologists in the 1990s, the web has recently become an intensely social medium, thanks in large part to proliferating online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. Young people have been using these websites on their PCs to keep in touch with much larger groups of people than has ever been feasible before. It is not uncommon for adolescents to add several “friends” a day to their “social graph” on Facebook or to the “buddy list” of their instant-messaging service.”

See Family Ties: Kith and Kin Get Closer with Consequences for Strangers (4/10/08 special report in Economist) and A Wireless Word: Our Nomadic Future (4/10/08 issue of Economist).

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2 responses to “How technology affects friendships

  1. Researchers at Michigan State have published a number of articles related to social capital on social networking sites, specifically Facebook. You can view one of the articles online at http://www.swinmc.net/documents/facebook.pdf.

    I am writing about this topic for my master’s thesis, and have found that technology is actually increasing the number of weak ties in people’s social networks because it allows the user to maintain connections at a minimal cost. Another good article to check out related to this is Donath and Boyd’s “Public Displays of Connection.”

  2. I was given this topic in a computer class i am taking, and i was having a difficult time finding information on the topic. But this blog has helped me get more information. Thanks for the help.

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