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Facebook Users: More Friends, Closer Friends

Increasing trust, citizenship, and social ties through Facebook, who knew?

Not to mention: better citizens.

Hermandad-Friendship by Rufino.

And won't that annoy all the people who have been certain that technology is alienating, and that Facebook and other social networking tools are substituting a caricature for "real" human relations?

A new study from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project has surprising results for such critics.

An article on NPR's website pulls out some of the more striking findings. It reports that people who use Facebook several times a day average 9 percent more "close, core ties in their overall social network compared with other internet users."...

[A] Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day is 43% more likely than other internet users and more than three times as likely as non-internet users to feel that most people can be trusted."...

These results should make people pause and reconsider earlier studies that news media used to promote negative views of social media.

For example, when TIME described a Stanford University study on the conditions surrounding negative feelings, it led with a line about Facebook: "Have other people's blithe Facebook updates ever made you feel like a total loser?"

But the study itself was not directly concerned with social media in general or Facebook in specific.

The Stanford study actually found that people have more negative feelings when alone, and that people attempt to conceal negative feelings from others, leading test subjects to over-estimate their own unhappiness in comparison to that of others.

The only references to such media came in the final page of the study, when the researchers wrote that

research on errors in the perception of others' emotional lives may help to explain why Internet users read sad online diaries or notes of others...such sites may help visitors feel less alone in their own problems. On the other hand, social networking sites (e.g. may exacerbate common misperceptions of others' emotional lives because of the complete control that users have over the public image they project to the world...

Note that "may": the authors of this study have no data on this; they are projecting (I think reasonably) how a behavior seen in face to face life-- concealing negative feelings and misperceiving the happiness of others-- might also occur in digital life.

In research actually aimed at examining the impact of Facebook, publicized by the Chronicle of Higher Education, researchers from the University of Guelph found that "Facebook-specific jealousy" was caused by people seeing the names of past loves on the list of their partners' Facebook friends.

The authors of this study, of a sample of 308 college students aged 17 to 24, asserted that the "more time people spend online, the more suspicious they become".

While news reports described the study as documenting "rising jealousy", in fact, there is no historical baseline for the results, and one might be excused for pointing out that college students have always had dramatic romantic relationships. It comes with the territory; the only thing novel is that social networking provides new ways to find out that your partner is still talking to his old girlfriend.

The researchers in this case continued to study the behavior of the college students who are their target population, with particular concern for their understanding of privacy and Facebook, issuing a pamphlet designed to encourage these young people to use this technology differently.

But as with other studies that focus on youths, it is questionable whether these results should be projected onto all users of the technology. The Pew study confirmed what many of us know: Facebook is no longer a young people's space.

Pew reports that almost half of Americans use some social networking site, double the number from their baseline of 2008. The fastest growing segment: adults over the age of 35. Almost half of adults 36 and older on the internet now use a social networking site. The average age of social networking site users is now 38 (up from 33 in 2008) and fully half of those using such sites are over 35.

And that leads to one of the possibly more surprising findings from the Pew study, again as reported by NPR:

[A] Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day was an additional two and half times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote, and an additional 43% more likely to have said they would vote."

Nor is better citizenship the only societal good produced by participation in Facebook.

I am always skeptical of stories claiming that technologies are leading to anomie or breaking down what authors of such articles tend to claim are "traditional" modes of relationship.

Any anthropologist knows that human relations are always fraught, regardless of social scale or mode of technology. Being human among other humans with their messy emotions is uncomfortable, whether you hear about them via electronics or whispers through a pole and thatch wall.

But my suspicion of hyped up claims that digital technology is destroying our humanity doesn't mean I automatically expect technologies to improve our lives. Yet that is precisely what the Pew study found.

The authors summarize this point simply: "Facebook users get more social support than other people."

The nuts and bolts are a little more technical. They used a standard measure already employed in other studys of "how much total support, emotional support, companionship, and instrumental aid adults receive", which is assessed on a scale of 100. The average they report for American adults is 75/100 for total support, emotional support, and "instrumental aid", which they illustrate as "having someone to help if they are sick in bed". The average was slightly higher for companionship ("having people to spend time with"), at 76/100.

Here's where their findings on technology are most interesting: users of the Internet score higher in all three areas (78/100 in total support; 82/100 in companionship; 79/100 in instrumental support).

Facebook users "who use the site multiple times per day" get even higher scores, adding five points in total support, emotional support, and companionship to these already higher than average scores.

Again, quoting the study

For Facebook users, the additional boost is equivalent to about half the total support that the average American receives as a result of being married or cohabitating with a partner.

There is, one should emphasize, nothing magical about Facebook. That's the point: these are tools, and what matters is how these tools are used.

The reality of life in America today that many people contend with is that jobs and responsibilities take up much of our time. Jobs may lead us to move far from our families of birth and the friends we made in primary and secondary school. For those who attend college and form close bonds there, it is unlikely that they will end up living and working in the same place as their college classmates.

Technologies that allow people far apart to maintain connection are, the Pew study shows, increasing the sense of social support that people have.

It seems there is more to the "social" in social networking than just an empty promise.