In this CSCW paper (my second at the conference), I analyze a subsection of data from my dissertation, focusing specifically on the question of how (a) one’s use of Facebook and (b) Facebook-derived relational outcomes may vary between geographically dispersed vs. geographically proximate Friends, as well as between Friends who rely primarily or solely on the site for communication vs. those who use alternate channels such as phone calls, emails, and face-to-face interactions.
To analyze this question, I had participants in my study log into Facebook and select a pseudo-random* Facebook Friend for whom they would answer a series of questions. These included a number of questions related to relationship maintenance strategies they could engage in through the site (e.g., sending birthday wishes, communicating about a shared interest), their perceptions regarding the extent to which their use of Facebook affected the quality of the relationship, both in terms of how close they felt to the other person and the relationship’s stability, general relational closeness, frequency of communication through a variety of Facebook-specific and other communication channels, and other measures. To read the full study’s methodology, see my dissertation.
The findings for both geographic distance and use of Facebook as the primary communication channel were the same: when controlling for a dyad’s existing level of relational closeness, participants reported engaging in a greater amount of relationship maintenance strategies through the site and believed the site to have a more positive effect on their level of relational closeness and relational stability with the Friend for whom they were responding. What this finding in particular, and my dissertation to a larger extent, support, is that there are specific types of relationships that benefit more from using the site as a relationship maintenance tool. This likely has to do with a number of factors: for example, in my dissertation, I found that weak ties who were highly engaged in relationship maintenance behaviors on the site saw the site as much more beneficial than strong ties who were highly engaged in these same behaviors. From this finding, it is a small jump to Haythornthwaite’s work on media multiplexity, whereby stronger ties use a greater quantity of communication channels.
However, in this study, I controlled for relational closeness, meaning these differences emerged regardless of how close participants rated that relationship outside of their use of Facebook. This suggests that something deeper is going on. Much as the work of Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman more than a decade earlier argued that email was supplementing other forms of communication when “richer” forms were unavailable, Facebook may be filling that void now–and why not? It’s ubiquitous, mobile, easy to use regardless of age, and easy to share content like photos and videos. And as Hampton recently noted, SNSs like Facebook have this quality and being persistent and pervasive, perhaps changing the relationship lifecycle forever.
*Because of the way Facebook’s algorithm works for Friend display, generating a truly random selection would be difficult if not impossible. For more on this method of participant selection, see this paper by Ledbetter et al. (2011).