An mtvU-Associated Press survey, whose results were released in early October, shows the apparent extensiveness of college students' interconnectedness via social media and technology. As one example, 13% of students estimated that they send 101-200 text messages on their cell phone "on a typical day," with another 10% guessing that they send 201 or more texts per day. Of students who report having used social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter (and 92% say they have), 26% claimed to have between 500-999 "friends," 10% from 1,000-1,999 friends, and 2%, 2,000 or more!
The large amount of texting is consistent with what I see while teaching my classes. In an undergraduate class I'm currently teaching, there always seem to be a few students texting away while class is going on. One way, in a previous class, I apparently was able to reduce texting during class was by scheduling a short break midway through (this was a longer class than my current one). There seemed to be little texting while I was lecturing, but once I announced that we would now start the break, virtually everybody in class whipped out their communication devices!
In response to the survey, a television news affiliate here in Lubbock, Texas (Fox 34) did a story at Texas Tech to get a local angle, for which I was interviewed (here's a transcript). Hence, I've been thinking a lot lately about trends in students' centipede-like social connections and possible causes of the phenomenon.
Certainly, students (like anyone else) would want to avoid the depths of loneliness. What they want instead is to feel connected. Indeed, let's assume that the availability of friends and family members at one's fingertips (albeit without the richness of face-to-face encounters) can enhance feelings of social connection. My next question, then, would be: Why do so many college students seem to go well beyond, in network size and frequency of communication, what presumably would be needed to have a meaningful, fulfilling sense of connection? Is it really necessary to send 100 or 200 text messages a day, or have 1,000 or more Facebook friends? In fact, in the survey referenced above, students reported engaging in what could be considered the closest forms of friendship (e.g., seeing someone in person, talking on the phone with him or her, sharing personal details) with only "some" or "very few" of their network members. So why the large networks and frenetic texting?
A guest who recently came on NBC's Today Show to discuss the benefits of social connections suggested, among other things, that receiving a playful ("LOL") message from a friend or relative might produce a kind of contagion of happiness (see the video). I would also argue, from my own experience, that after posting something (a comment, web link, etc.) on a networking site, blog, or discussion board, there's a certain excitement in waiting to see if others respond to your posting and, if so, what they say.
Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, on what makes a cultural object (movie, book, fashion, etc.) rapidly increase in popularity, offers another perspective. Gladwell writes of connectors, who are prolific at spreading word of mouth. Connectors have an "ability to span many different worlds [that] is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy" (p. 49). So, the indefatigable texters and networkers in our midst may simply be manifestations of Gladwell's connector concept. Connectors, however, are described by Gladwell as being fairly rare in the population, probably too rare to account for the sizable proportions of students cited above who send out such high volumes of text messages.
Not being completely satisfied with the explanations reviewed thus far for why some college students build up such large networks and endlessly send messages back and forth, I consulted the social-science research literature. I found an article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which reported a simulation experiment in which college-student respondents viewed one of five versions of a Facebook mock-up page. The versions differed only in the number of friends the depicted Facebook user was said to have, roughly 100, 300, 500, 700, or 900. After viewing the mock-up Facebook profile, the respondent rated the Facebook user on various measures of attractiveness and personality.
Contrary to what some might expect, the fictitious Facebook user was not necessarily better liked when depicted as having a larger network. On a measure of "social attractiveness" (i.e., how much others would like to be friends with you), the Facebook user obtained higher ratings when displaying a network size of 300 than 100. However, at network sizes of 500, 700, and 900, social attractiveness ratings of the network owner started going down again. The authors offered the following speculative explanation of their findings:
"Individuals with too many friends may appear to be focusing too much on Facebook, friending out of desperation rather than popularity, spending a great deal of time on their computers ostensibly trying to make connections in a computer-mediated environment where they feel more comfortable than in face-to-face social interaction..."
Thus, it seems that increasing one's network size might also increase others' liking for you. But only up to a point. At this point, we seem to have a bunch of possible hypotheses for students' networking and texting behavior, each of which offers a partial explanation. Thanks for taking the time to read this column. You can now go back to your Facebook and texting!