CSCW 2014 paper: Facebook Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Relationship Maintenance Strategies Among Geographically Dispersed and Communication-Restricted Connections

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.

If you want to learn more about this paper, you can read it here, and you can come see me present it at CSCW 2014 in Baltimore this February!

*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).

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CASCI Presentation Slides Posted

Today, I gave a talk as part of the CASCI research series at UMD, presenting some of the highlights from my dissertation. I’ve linked to my slides below and will try to follow up with some more detailed notes shortly.

Is social media making me meaner?

I was chatting with a colleague earlier today and he asked for my input on something he had recently heard. Basically, he suggested that social media is making the population snarkier. The reasoning goes a little like this:

(1) If we assume that the reason most people post status updates, comments, Tweets, etc. is to get attention, and

(2) If we assume that snarkiness is more likely to get attention than otherwise banal posts, then

(3) Logically, people should be increasing the snarkiness of their postings.

Since I am rather obsessed with observing these media outlets, my friend asked if I had noticed this. And I had to really think about it. The logic does have a degree of face validity. It makes me think of Generation Me, a book I bought a year or two ago that I still haven’t read (I’ve been busy!). The book looks at people born after about 1970: a generation of people who are more self-absorbed and have less respect for others than their forebears. For the me generation, it often is about “me, me, me,” and social media support the projection–and sometimes shouting–of that individual’s identity throughout the world.

Look at Twitter. I will admit I am an avid user, and I use it for a variety of purposes, from keeping in touch with friends to posting news links to venting frustration (in 140 characters or less!). But if we break Twitter down to its most basic question–What are you doing?–it perpetuates the idea of me! Me! ME! The same can be said of Facebook status updates, which can be updated innumerable times a day if one so chooses.

But moving back to the question at hand, I have a hard time believing that social media are reshaping users’ identity in such a way as to make them snarkier, meaner, or posting solely to get attention. Obviously, these sites let users play with identity in a way that is more difficult–or even impossible–in an offline interaction. But why be mean to a friend on these sites when they know where you live? With Facebook at least, a key difference in these interactions from more anonymous sites is that the vast majority of Facebook “friends” constitute pre-existing offline relationships (see Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007 for empirical support).

We can also look to other forms of media as introducing snarkiness into our daily lives. The two examples that pop to mind immediately as homes of snarky content are someecards and lolcats. So then, the question becomes: are sites like these a response to increasing snarkiness or are they making snarkiness more acceptable? Or both?

For me, the most basic question I come to is, Is snarkiness even a problem? I am about as snarky as a person can be, but I generally constrain my snarkiness in such a way as to make it clear that it is a part of my sense of humor and not a comment to be taken seriously. I also find myself evaluating my relationship to the individual before commenting on a photo or status update or responding to a tweet, and the snarkiness only comes out when I know the person will appreciate (or at least understand) the joke. But do I do it to draw attention to myself? Without probing too deeply into my subconscious, I would say not really.

So while I think this rationale for posting is feasible, at this time I don’t think it is necessarily the case. As ubiquitous as they are, SNSs still have something of that new car smell for many users, who still get excited when they find an old friend or when someone posts a picture from back in the day. People are genuinely interested in the conversation and interaction, much more so than getting their 596 friends to notice them. While I hate the saying, “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” it is true for many people. Then there are people like myself and several of my friends, who gauge the closer of our relationships by how deeply we can insult each other (it’s harmless fun, I swear!).

Regardless, I think I’ll be taking a closer look at my Live Feed over the next week to see if any patterns of postings jump out to support this idea.

My master’s thesis is online, free for all to read!

I spent nearly eight months of my life researching and writing my master’s thesis on Facebook and identity, and now it has *finally* been posted online by Georgetown. Hooray! I know some of my fellow students would rather forget their theses now that they’ve graduated, but since I will be continuing this research (at least related research) for the next four to five years at Michigan State, I am happy to share my work with the world, especially since I am truly proud of the final project.

For those not familiar with my research, my thesis considered the evolving role of social networking sites in transforming users’ methods of communication with various members of their social network. I conducted a survey of 600+ Georgetown University undergraduates to try and get to the heart of why they use sites like Facebook and how social networking sites have changed the ways in which they form and maintain relationships.

The thesis can be accessed here.

And here is the full abstract to whet your appetite.

We live in an increasingly networked world. We are connected to each other through numerous types of ties, with social networking sites offering one of the most popular methods people currently employ to link themselves together. But do “old-fashioned” ways of developing and maintaining relationships suffer from the evolution of computer-mediated communication? Have we become too reliant on the instantaneous, answer-producing quality of the internet that can reveal others’ most intimate personal details before we even introduce ourselves?

This thesis examines social relationships online to see how they differ from traditional offline relationships, focusing on how people create an online identity and how that identity affects the formation and maintenance of “friendships” in the digital world. The thesis will then consider how the social networking site Facebook impacts relationships in the real world. This analysis will be based on a survey of 644 Georgetown University undergraduates regarding their uses of various technologies to interact with different members of their social networks, and especially their use of Facebook to form and maintain relationships.

I’m sorry son, but you’ve got the SNAD, and I believe it’s incurable

WTF is the SNAD, you ask? Well, according to Nicole Ferraro over at the Internet Evolution blog, Social Networking Anxiety Disorder is similar to the better-known Social Anxiety Disorder, but rather than the anxiety being brought on via social encounters, it is brought on by the inherent “pressures” associated with social networking sites like Facebook.

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Don’t laugh too hard though. In the spring, I gave a guest lecture on social media to an undergrad computer science class at Georgetown. During a vigorous discussion with students about Facebook, several students said that they never refused friend requests because they didn’t “want to be mean” to those making the requests, even if the requests were coming from people they didn’t know. I also came across this trend in my thesis research: in the survey I conducted on Georgetown undergraduates, I asked respondents questions related to how they initially met online-only friends, and a noteworthy number (I believe several dozen) replied that the other person had “randomly” friended them.

Another potential cause for anxiety comes from something as simple as the “Relationship Status” field in a person’s profile, and the News Feed’s annoying little habit of telling everyone in the whole world when that status changes (with a very sad broken heart icon for breakups…damn, Facebook is cruel). I know from my own friends and interactions with Facebook users that men are significantly less likely to change their status once they begin dating a new person, and if they do change it, it’s more likely to be to remove the status completely rather than add “In a Relationship.” Women, however, want to broadcast to the world that they are no longer that poor single girl, and the lack of reciprocation by their new man can be the source of many arguments. Another interesting finding from my thesis research showed that of those respondents who said their offline relationships had suffered negative consequences because of the content in their Facebook profile, nearly half (n=39) said that a boyfriend or girlfriend had ended a relationship. Admittedly, teenage relationships are much more fickle and fleeting than more adult relationships, but such concerns could certainly be anxiety-inducing in an 18-year-old.

Now, as a social media researcher, I find this to be a silly — and potentially dangerous — practice, most obviously because of the risks these users are opening themselves up to in terms of their privacy. After all, some Facebook users are dumb enough to include their addresses and phone numbers in their profiles for everyone to see. As someone who is 10 years older than most of these respondents, however, I can understand the desire to be part of the social media phenomenon and the belief that quantity exceeds quality (in terms of the number of friends). Recent Pew Internet research has also found that teens do take online privacy seriously, and are more educated about privacy and security on SNSs than their adult counterparts.

Personally, I see SNAD to be only slightly more ridiculous than the recently revitalized hype over Internet addiction. Sure, some people probably do get too involved in their social networking accounts and spend an unhealthy amount of time on these sites, just as there will always be gamers who spend too much time playing online games or kids who drink too much milk or jump off one too many ledges with their skateboards. These people will all experience negative consequences, whether it is the development of an aversion to sunlight, the loss of friends, a bad bout of nausea (I can tell you from personal experience that drinking too much milk, i.e., 3/4 of a gallon in five minutes, will make you mighty nauseous), or a broken arm. That’s why everything should be done in moderation! Don’t let Facebook take over your life, because that is a pretty boring life. The least you could do is move from the basement to the living room and play some Super Smash Bros. Brawl with some friends.

New blog post on Pew Internet Project site

My latest post is up on the Pew Internet website. This one considers my master’s thesis research in light of the Project’s recent report on the impact of technology on teens’ writing havits, which I have previously blogged about here. Check it out.

For my master’s thesis at Georgetown University, I was interested in how 21st century communication technologies are changing the ways in which people interact with members of their social networks. Specifically, I focused my research on how Facebook is altering the methods users employ to build and maintain a network of friends. This research was facilitated by a survey of 644 Georgetown undergraduates on their uses of various communication technologies, and especially the internet, in keeping connected with others.

I recently began thinking of my research in light of Pew’s recent Writing, Technology and Teens report, and saw several interesting connections between the two. Both studies focus on digital natives, or those users who have had access to many of these newer communication technologies since a young age: Pew’s report looks at 12-17 year olds, while my research was limited to college undergraduates ages 18-25. Furthermore, both studies consider the implications of technology on communication. Therefore, the question that arose in my mind was, do the trends we found in our Pew report among younger teens also apply to young adults? [More…]

Take that, master’s thesis, I totally kicked your ass

I have received the official Grad School signoff on my master’s thesis, which can mean only one thing: I am done! Done done DONE! Well, at least I’m done until August, when I begin my PhD studies at Michigan State.

Six long months of research; checking and rechecking out books from the library; creating, disseminating, collecting and coding 600+ surveys; and writing up a 140-page document all by my lonesome are OVER. Yay!

As soon as the Grad School posts a link to my thesis online, I will post it to the blog. However, if you are curious about my topic, here is the title and abstract:

Facebook “Friends”: How Online Identities Impact Offline Relationships

Abstract: We live in an increasingly networked world. We are connected to each other through numerous types of ties, with social networking sites offering one of the most popular methods people currently employ to link themselves together. But do “old-fashioned” ways of developing and maintaining relationships suffer from the evolution of computer-mediated communication? Have we become too reliant on the instantaneous, answer-producing quality of the internet that can reveal others’ most intimate personal details before we even introduce ourselves?

This thesis examines social relationships online to see how they differ from traditional offline relationships, focusing on how people create an online identity and how that identity affects the formation and maintenance of “friendships” in the digital world. The thesis will then consider how the social networking site Facebook impacts relationships in the real world. This analysis will be based on a survey of 644 Georgetown University undergraduates regarding their uses of various technologies to interact with different members of their social networks, and especially their use of Facebook to form and maintain relationships.

This summer, I’ll be repackaging the thesis to submit to journals, and hopefully getting some mileage out of my research on the tech blogs.