Social networking websites are heralded as a more efficient way of keeping in touch with friends and family, enabling people to communicate more frequently or openly than they otherwise would away from the computer. The most popular of these websites, Facebook, has more than 800 million active users worldwide. Despite the large number of users, researchers are only beginning to understand more about how people use Facebook to interact with their friends, and how different forms of communication on the website impact feelings of social connectedness and psychological well-being. In this post, I highlight some recent studies that have examined this issue in detail.
The Importance of Distinguishing Between Direct and Indirect Actions
In some sense, the way we manage our social connections on Facebook is no different from how we build relationships offline. The need for connectedness is one of the most basic motivations underlying social behavior. We use Facebook to maintain a positive social identity and satisfy needs for acceptance and social affiliation.
One study, conducted by researchers in New Zealand, looked into how people weaved Facebook into their daily lives. They were primarily interested in the social dimensions of Facebook, which they divided into two categories: direct and indirect actions. Direct actions include messaging, chat, wall posts, comments, photo tagging, and "likes." Indirect actions are those where an individual looks at a friend's profile or reads that person's status updates. Most Facebook users initiate a combination of direct and indirect actions when they use the website. Some do this quite frequently, with nearly a third of users (31%) posting daily status updates.
The social benefits of using Facebook to communicate with friends and build relationships are mixed. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Facebook analyzed the server logs of more than a thousand Facebook users over a period of two months, and conducted a survey to ask users about how close they feel to their friends, and the frequency with which they make new social connections. They found that Facebook users who engaged in greater direct actions (messaging, commenting) reported greater bridging (making new friends), social bonding, and self-esteem. In contrast, users who had a record of more indirect actions and passive consumption (refreshing the news feed, reading friends' status updates and viewing their profiles) reported more frequent feelings of loneliness and lower self-esteem.
Some research has indicated that even indirect actions foster a sense of connectedness between users. A study of Facebook users in Germany found that the more individuals used status updates to share information about themselves to others, the more they felt connected to other people in their social network. However, they also noted that some people who participated in the study felt apprehensive when they sent friend requests for fear of being rejected in the event that the user would not accept their request.
It appears that the benefits of using Facebook to maintain friendships and other social relationships are complex and reflect individual patterns of communication and content consumption. A number of studies suggest that Facebook can be used to strengthen and reinforce distant social connections, while others indicate that the website inflates the number of one's actual friends and discourages real interaction. One theme emerging from several studies is that direct actions with Facebook friends appear to increase individual feelings of connectedness and self-esteem, while indirect actions may do the opposite.
Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010). Social network activity and social well-being. Proceedings from the CHI 2010 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
Johnstone, M.L., Todd, S., & Chua, A.P.H. (2009). Facebook: Making social connections. Advances in Consumer Research, 8, 234-236.
Kobler, F., Riedl, C., Vetter, C., Leimeister, J.M., Krcmar, H. (2010). Social connectedness on Facebook - An explorative study on status message usage. Proceedings from the Sixteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems.