You are not alone


While this phrase brings to mind X-files, what it means to social media researchers is that the web has ensured that no one ever needs to be lonely.  Online networking has seen to that.

Before considering how genuine or how close your internet friends really are, you might think about whether that matters.

One of the benchmarks for friendship networks was set by Robin Dunbar, evolutionary anthropologist, Oxford University, in his book, How many friends does one person need?  Dunbar theorises that there is a "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships" – sometimes known as Dunbar’s number.  He suggests that the primate brain can only manage 150 genuine social relationships.

Interestingly, Facebook’s owners say that the average number of friends for any member is currently around 130, which is not far from Dunbar’s number.

On the other hand, there are contacts both below and above that number with whom we may not have a close relationship, but because of social networking tools we are able to keep in touch much more easily than ever before.  What is more, those “weak ties” may have more influence on our lives than you may think.  One researcher who has found that weak ties of friendship are highly influential on your opinions and your success is Mark Granovetter (American Journal of Sociology, vol 78).  For instance, people get jobs through opportunities passed on by affiliates rather than close friends.

Other studies demonstrate how use of Facebook increases self-esteem.  Nicole Ellison of Michigan State University is quoted in the New Scientist, 10 July 2010, as saying “Support and affirmation for weak ties could be the explanation” (Ellison et al, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 12).

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is growing evidence that making friends and influencing people go hand-in-hand online. The New Scientist article quotes a series of experiments by Michael Kearns of the University of Philadelphia, which found that well-connected individuals had greater influence than others in the online world in the same way as their counterparts do in the real world.  (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 106, p.1347).  The researchers found that those with up to 300 friends were rated increasingly popular, but after that number their social appeal seemed to drop away.

Facebook’s own research backs up the correlation between subjective well-being and web-based social networking.  Contentment from site use is attributed by Sandy Pentland of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the ability of networkers to broadcast to their social group which, he says, means we may never feel alone.

So you can now get back to those emails and respond positively to those sent from members of Linked-in asking you to join their network.  But when you get to 300, you can relax, or unfriend some as you befriend others.  Good networking.

Posted by Joseph Peart
With Gary Mersham as the driving force and my AUT colleague Petra Theunissen, I recently authored my third book, Public relations and communication management: an Aotearoa/New Zealand perspective (2009).

My first book was written with Jim Macnamara who has just published his 12th book, The 21st century media (r)evolution (2010).

On paper, both books comment on social media.  In Jim’s case, he writes about changes wrought by electronic media, from “Web 3.0, the semantic web” to wireless-connected location-aware notebooks and GPS-equipped phones/computers.  

Our words are on paper, but our thoughts are on satellites.

Global Positioning Systems (via satellites) mean that people can decide if they want to be found through applications in the Web “cloud”, such as foursquare or Comob Net and Comob.  Foursquare is a location-based social networking website, and Comob offers a collaborative GPS mapping ap. which you can download onto your iPhone or Nokia.  

Comob began as a digital arts project to explore social relationships.  Foursquare is more blatantly commercial.  It allows you to check-in to places, meet up with friends and discover new places, many of which are retail social venues like bars and restaurants, which register on the site.

Does this mean that we will be forced to give up our privacy, or will it remain under our control?

Well, research suggests that it’s not just social life, but work-life that creates concerns about where you are and what you are doing.  For instance, in Fortune Magazine (June 14) Beth Kowitt reports that a study done for Microsoft earlier this year found 7% of employees felt that their co-workers were not supportive (up from 1% in 2008); and 16% of bosses were seen as not supportive (also up from 1% two years earlier): so “Face time ain’t dead yet”.

Maybe we will be more supportive if remote workers carry their GPS devices around like a home-detention bracelet.  That way, bosses and co-workers could be confident they are in their home office and not at the beach or in a café.  (It might even confirm the stat. in the same article that 9% surveyed said they worked in the loo.)

Could location sensitive software could be the new bubble, ask investors.  Well, Foursquare is just one of the new start-up companies reported same issue of Fortune under the headline “Web 2.0: the party’s over” (p. 14).  In that article, Jessi Hempel notes Facebook’s $US1.4 billion revenue this year makes its IPO (due 2012?) “…one of the most anticipated since Google’s”.

But the same article notes: AOL’s plans to sell or shutdown Bebo and Rupert Murdoch’s rueful comment about his Myspace purchase that “We made some big mistakes”.  Google is still bullish about Youtube, but “analysts predict that significant profits are still years away” (p.14).

So, where is all this heading?

One answer is provided by Nicholas Carr in his book, The shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains.  Carr suggests that web multitasking and “power browsing” are turning our neural pathways into drains full of trivia.  One interesting stat. is that most web pages are viewed for 10 seconds or less; and fewer than one in 10 page views last more than 2 minutes.  

Imagine what that does to our attention spans….

What was that?