Monday, September 6, 2010

Social Media Musings

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and to a lesser extent, Tumblr, Flickr, and blogging platform sites (blogger, wordpress): what do they all have in common? They fall under the category of social media. They condense our social world, bringing us together globally like never before. Are you as tired of hearing terms like "global village", "global economy" and "OMG the internet totally brings us together lol" as I am? Yet, it's still a subject that bears some examining, because it has changed us, both on a global and individual level. It's had a huge impact on the way we relate to each other. Sites like Facebook and MySpace have a different dynamic to the rest because they ask for real information - they (supposedly) reflect and enhance our real life 'connections', though more and more, through gaming, pages and groups, they are connecting people who would not have met off-line, who now connect through text and trawl each others photos even though they have never, and probably will never meet face-to-face. Forums, blogging, Tumblr and to a lesser extent Twitter, are more anonymous - they provide a platform for virtual relationships to blossom, where people know each other by nicknames and handles and may not, for months, or ever exchange photos and 'real' information, though they consider themselves friends.

The dynamic of these virtual relations are a little odd, if you think about it. The way we relate to each other online is markedly different to our 'physical-world' way, but we don't really think of it in those terms, do we?

Let me attempt to break it down, to compare it step-by-step, so to speak:
1. Two people meet, say on a forum. They would probably post in many of the same threads, directing comments at and referring to each other. They might read each other's post history to try and get a better sense of one another.
2. A private message may be sent, asking a question or proferring a comment, funny link or piece of information.
3. The two may arrange to meet online somewhere that they can chat in 'realtime'. This may be an independant chatroom, an email-based host such as MSN.
4. Cross-connection would begin; they would refer each other to the other social media sites that they use.
5. Facebook identities would be the final point of the connection - giving each other access to real names, photographs, and real-life friends.

1. The two people meet, say at a party. They will likely be introduced by a mutual friend. They talk, exchange stories, and by the end of the night will likely exchange phone numbers or email.
2. A mix of private and group interactions will now take place. The two new acquaintances will text and/or email each other, and probably go out with the mutual friend. They will begin to get to know each other independant of the mutual friend.
3. They will connect on Facebook, looking at photos, social history, likes and dislikes.
4. Now this relationship can go one of two ways: either the relationship will develop online, offline, a mix of the two, or it will not develop at all, and they will remain at the acquaintance stage.

Mentally and emotionally, humans are capable of maintaining only 150 relationships offline. Some sociologists are claiming that Facebook, whilst it does not help us expand that number, helps maintain 'weak ties' we would not ordinarily be able to have head-space for. I like to call this, very un-scientifically, the "Huh! I remember that person!" factor. People you knew in school but weren't close to, people you used to work with, ex-next-door neighbors, that sort of thing. People you wouldn't object to keeping in contact with, but somehow, you never quite made the effort to connect with them. These are your 'periphary' relationships. These are the people that are friends with us on Facebook, but there's no wall-to-wall talking. Maybe just a quiz invite or two.

Our circle of real, close friends is often very small. These are the people we will cry in front of, the people we may fight with, the people we want to tell important news to first, the people to whom we say, "Stop working so hard, I never see you any more!" and actually mean it. If I'm going to be brutally honest, I probably only have three of these sorts of friends, and one of these is my boyfriend, so he's in a category of his own. These people may actually not Facebook/Twitter with us very often - because they're so often with you, or you already called them and told them things that it would just be overkill to talk about it online!

Then there are the people that, for reasons of time, distance and scheduling, have the potential to become one of the really close friends. These are the people we really like spending time with, and have lots of thing sin common with, but aren't totally comfortable telling them all of the intimate details of our life yet. They may eventually become part of our 'inner circle', but for now multiple coffee dates and lunches giggling over TV series are the go. These people are probably very present in our online lives, where you chat and arrange meetings through tweets and messages.

Online friends, people who you meet through games, forums, blogs etc. may never hear your voice, due to the security risks and costs inherent with talking to a stranger on the phone. However, Skype, saviour of many long-distance relationships, is changing this. Some friends may be content with text-only relationships conducted through every social media available, but those who aren't may now talk aloud with new-found cross-Atlantic pals. These people, naturally, will be very present in your 'online' life and activities, because it is their primary form of contact with you.

As a media student with a very basic, amateur interest in sociology, I find the subject of technological impact on human relationships quite fascinating. It's also especially helpful in diffusing the grumbling surrounding how 'wired in' Gen X and Y are ;)

So... yeah. This post started off all nice and decisive and degenerated into me rambling and providing bad examples. SORRY!

LINKS  (stuff I read that gave me ideas)


  1. Thanks for writing about this in a non-polarising way - most articles I've encountered on social media are either totally hyping it up, or totally dismissive and claim that the internet is annihilating our ability to react to people in realtime (sigh.).

    I use twitter very occasionally, blog pretty frequently (as you know!) and use facebook a lot, although as Eudoxia (which is an adopted pseudonym that I really like). I think that online communication provides 2 main things (as opposed to offline communication): a chance to put your views and opinions out there in a new way, and a chance to network with a lot of people without being a nuisance or taking up a lot of their time or yours.

    Views and opinions: I've written stuff on my blogs / read stuff on other people's blogs or facebook notes about politics, religion, marriage ... stuff that had we discussed it in person, could've gotten very awkward and confrontational. But by being able to discuss it online in different spaces, it changes things. Someone coming up to you and telling you that they think that all religions are bunk (for example) is confrontational, that same someone posting that on their blog (not particularly aimed at you) is not.

    For networking (and I mean that in a broad sense), facebook has been a great way for me to be in touch with people I don't really know well enough to phone or email personally. It's also a great way of putting a call out when you don't know who'll be able to help - something like "Does anyone have a really good recipe for macaroons?" might be answered by anyone - a friend who doesn't cook but their sister made some, for example. Or something like "I want to learn German, any advice? I've never studied it before" is something where similarly a lot of people might have really useful information - but you wouldn't go up to 100 people you vaguely knew and ask them all about learning German. But you can do that on facebook, and it's fine - and people will be very interested in helping (at least in my experience).

  2. One last thing - assumptions that people you meet 'in the real world' are more real friends than people you know online bothers me (e.g. the Telegraph "FB friends are virtual" article).

    "While "people obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends" the reality was that their social circle was unlikely to be bigger than anybody else's. " - isn't that begging the question? You're just defining "social circle" so that your conclusion holds.

    There may well be a general correlation, but this assumption totally ignores the fact that online connections open up a whole world for some people, which is very much real - whether that's because you're the only DS9 fan you know, or because you're mobility impaired and can't get out and meet people very much.


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