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.

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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.

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.