I’ve recently jumped onto the Facebook bandwagon. Currently, my profile shows 85 friends - a dismal number compared to some others linked into this networking site. One person I know boasts an incredible 881 friends. However, Dr Will Reader, an evolutionary psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University, cautions that such huge contact lists are not an accurate indication of a person’s real social status.
According to the news reports, his research into the new types of friendships being fostered online shows that:
Social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace aren’t expanding people’s circles of close friends, but they are creating plenty of meaningless relationships.
His study showed that even though people may have hundreds or thousands of acquaintances, their core group of close friends is still unchanged at around five people. This research on social network sites could hold important insights for social organization in general.
Reader believes there are “good evolutionary reasons” explaining why core friendship groups are so small. Making friendships means investing time and even money in another person. This face-to-face contact is invaluable for people to assess if their investment is worthwhile. It’s “very easy to be deceptive” on the internet, said Reader.
His research findings imply that long distance communication technologies, while helping to broaden social networks, don’t necessarily deepen ties among people. These technologies may therefore be of limited value when trying to generate new partnerships or cooperative endeavors owing to the lack of face-to-face contact. It’s a finding that resonates with Jody William’s observations in an article she wrote in 1999 on the process leading to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Here she noted:
As important - and many might contend more so - as fax, phone and e-mail to link together the huge coalition, has been networking through travel and the building of personal relationships, both within the Campaign and between campaigners, and the various government and military representatives. Indeed, e-mail has been used relatively little for communications outside of the campaign, and the much remarked upon close cooperation between governments and NGOs during the Ottawa Process was more the result of face-to-face meetings than anything else.
Multilateral negotiators depend heavily on face to face dealings, and it’s unclear what the impact of new communication technologies have for their work, although Patricia Lewis has offered some examples in an earlier posting. (See Zapped! Mobile Technology in the Conference Chamber.) I echo her call for more research on this issue.
Vanessa Martin Randin
CBC News, It’s hard to make close friends on Facebook, study says, 10 September 2007, www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2007/09/10/science-websites.html.
Jody Williams, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines – A Model for Disarmament Initiatives?, 3 September 1999, www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/williams/index.html
Dr Will Reader’s biography and information about his research work can be found here.