Broadly speaking, my research interests lie in the social impacts of communication technology. Coming from a communication background, I am always interested in the message being communicated: who is communicating the message, with whom are they communicating, and what is the content of the message. But as a social scientist, my interest runs deeper. I am especially influenced Erving Goffman’s (1959) work on selective self-presentation and Granovetter’s (1973) seminal research on tie strength.
These influences have led me to focus, in my later years of graduate school, on the concept of context collapse as it applies to online sites such as Facebook where users articulate a network of connections and interact with those connections through a variety of public and private channels. Context collapse refers to the process by which an individual’s audiences–family, colleagues, friends, etc.–become flattened out through the technical features of the site. In the case of Facebook, this happens when a user Friends other users; regardless of the type or strength of relationship, all connections are considered “Friends” by the system, and the most visible form of self-presentation on the site, posting status updates are typically sent to one’s entire audience.
Many of these sites have created technical features to help mitigate some of users’ concerns related to context collapse. For example, on Google+, users choose which “Circles” with whom the share individual updates. Facebook has a less well-known feature, Friend Lists, which allows users to group their Friends according to any criteria of their choosing and distribute. Alternatively, users may engage in a form of self-censorship that Hogan (2010) has termed the lowest-common-denominator approach, in which users only share content that is appropriate for all audiences.
Thinking theoretically, this latter approach may have a negative impact on individuals’ ability to accrue social capital benefits because social capital is generated through interactions with one’s network; therefore, a lack of interaction would prevent an individual from making information or support-based requests of his/her network. My prelim research empirically tested many of these questions, and some findings are presented in an article in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media [pdf].
For my dissertation, I chose to take a step back and look at the relationship between these communication technologies and their role in the relationship maintenance process more broadly. Within the communication literature, much energy has been devoted over the last 50 years to exploring how relationships are maintained–but these studies contain some important gaps when considering the processes we enact in 2012. Relationship maintenance research tends to look at physically proximate, romantic relationships rather than the range of relationships individuals maintain, from neighbors to coworkers to high school friends that move away to go to college. New technologies, including email, mobile phones, and social media have removed many of the geographic, financial, and temporal constraints to relationship maintenance with distant (both physically and relationally) connections. While many researchers appear to have dismissed sites like Facebook as having any “meaningful” impact on relationships because of the very qualities that make them appealing to managing relationships that may otherwise disintegrate, the site’s affordances need to be examined at a deeper level to determine what impact–if any–these newer technologies may have on relationship maintenance, especially when considering relationships beyond one’s inner circle of connections. My dissertation abstract is below and the full document can be downloaded here:
Arguably, the technical features of social network sites simplify the process of maintaining and interacting with hundreds of social connections. At the same time, however, these sites’ affordances—namely the visibility and persistence of content and the articulation of those connections (e.g., through a “Friend List”)—raise new questions about how individuals engage in relationship maintenance with various types of ties. This dissertation seeks to expand our understanding of relationship maintenance processes to account for the unique affordances of these communication technologies through a survey of adult Facebook users (N=407). First, through exploratory factor analysis, it establishes a set of Facebook relationship maintenance strategies that reflect existing theory and measures while accounting for the affordances of social media. Next, through nested OLS regressions, it tests whether engagement in these strategies with a randomly selected Facebook Friend predicts three relational outcomes: relational closeness, relational satisfaction, and access to social provisions. Third, it tests whether engagement in these strategies is associated with perceptions that using Facebook positively impacts their perceived relational closeness and relational stability with that Friend, while controlling for existing levels of relational closeness. Findings indicate main effects for all four relationship maintenance strategies on perceptions of Facebook’s impact on relational closeness and relational stability, as well as interaction effects between existing relational closeness and multiple strategies in predicting these two outcomes, such that weaker ties who engage in these strategies view the site as having a more positive impact on their relationship than stronger ties. Subsequent analyses identify additional differences between those who primarily rely on Facebook to communicate with that Friend and those who do not, as well as those who are geographically distant from each other versus those who live nearby, while controlling for existing relational closeness. This study contributes to the extant literature on computer-mediated communication and relationship maintenance by extending our understanding of how individuals interact through mediated channels and the role that newer technologies like social network sites play in managing a wide range of relationships, especially weaker ties who are more likely to rely on social media to keep their relationship in existence.