Sunday, September 25, 2011

Computer mediated communication: are we LESS social?

Given the huge increase in popularity of Social Networking, could sites such as Facebook be making us less social?
Today’s societies consist of both localised and distributed tribes linked by numerous advanced forms of communication that transcend both real and virtual worlds.  In the last 20 years we’ve experienced a rapid evolution with many new forms of Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC) being used for social and relational purposes (Katz, Rice, Acord, Dasgupta, & David, 2004; Kavanaugh, Reese, Reese, Carroll, & Rosson, 2005). Primarily based around the Internet, these new forms of communication include technologies such as web-pages, blogs, newsgroups, forums, bulletin boards, chat lines, Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs) and Multi-user-dungeon Object Oriented (MOOs). Much of the earliest forms of CMC socialisation were based around e-mail (Finholt & Sproull, 1990), however in the last five years its been the exponential uptake of Social Networking Services (SNS) by mainstream society, (Ofcom, 2008) that has authorities (Kirby, 2009) and academics most concerned (Heim, 1992, 2009; Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).   
 In addition to the highly collaborative, participatory, interactive and some might say addictive nature of SNS, we see the making and collecting of friends as the primary focus of many sites such as Facebook. Capitalising on the fundamental desire for friendship and being part of a group or tribe, hundreds of websites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Hi5, and Qzone, have blossomed in the past 5 years, where hundreds of millions members religiously login and communicate on a daily basis (Snell, 2010). In addition to the huge rise in popularity and visitor numbers to SNS sites, it’s the stickiness of these sites, (the amount of time users spend on a site) that’s a major concern. Recent studies by The Nielsen Company in 2010, shows the average web-user is spends almost three times longer on Facebook than on other leading sites such as Google, e-Bay, Yahoo or Microsoft (Neilsen, 2010). Note the time spent on Facebook in the following table:-
Internet Usage
Social networking activity can be divided into two basic groups, those who had or have real-life friends and those who don’t. Typically adults looking to establish new relationships are sometimes found on dating websites such as,, and that provide meeting places for those looking to create new online relationships they can hopefully take off-line. However it’s the increased usage rates by the mainstream populus (those who have who have off-line friends) and new found obsession with social networking websites such as Facebook that’s a major vexation and the focus of this paper (Facebook, 2010).
 Let’s consider the views of late 20th century scholars and their opinions concerning online relationships; some argued that CMC technologies promote interpersonal relationships and create opportunities for genuine connectedness and community formations (Barak & Sadovsky, 2008; Kavanaugh, et al., 2005; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Rheingold, 1993; Wellman & Gulia, 1999; Wood & Smith, 2004).  Whilst others believe that on-line relationships are shallow, impersonal, and sometimes hostile and provide just an illusion of real-life society or community (Bakardjieva, 2003; Cummings, Butler, & Kraut, 2002; Heim, 1992). In addition early humanities and communications scholars conducted studies comparing CMC to face-to-face communications (Garton & Wellman, 1993) and discovered numerous social disadvantages with CMC. They argued that CMC groups had difficulty in forming a consensus of opinion (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992) and often displayed online aggression with derisive or nasty comments towards those of dissimilar opinions. CMC groups were also less likely to form agreements than face-to-face (Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986). Even though the technologies used during these studies are now rather dated, the theories, findings and concerns of scholars and researchers from 20 years ago are still relevant today.
Compared to the primitive CMC technologies used in the 1990’s and the small percentage of active participants, today’s multimedia SNS technologies and participation rates are explosive. In 2010 we see SNS participation rates of 9 million Australians registered on Facebook alone (NeilsenWire, 2010). Each day 4.1 million Australians login to Facebook and spend considerable time socialising online (NeilsenWire, 2009). Reports showed the total amount of time spent on the Internet globally between December 2007 and December 2008 increased by 18%. However the amount of time spent on “Member Community” websites increased by 63% and in particular the amount of time spent on Facebook increased by 566% (NeilsenWire, 2009). The increase in web traffic and the sheer amount of time users were spending on Facebook (NeilsenWire, 2010; Nielsen, 2010) has reduced not only face-to-face communications it reduced traffic and time spent on other websites in countries such as Australia, United Sates, Spain, UK, France, Italy and Switzerland. Such is the popularity of sites such as Facebook, that usage rates of traditional CMC technologies like e-mail have in some cases dropped by 41% (Perez, 2009).
Even late adopters of new technologies such as 35 to 60 year old women, have now become the fastest growing demographic on Facebook (Smith, 2009). Not only are traditional off-line mature adults adopting SNS technologies to rediscover old friends, they are now looking for love in safer places on sites such as Facebook (Schomer, 2009). However it’s the missing out on peer group e-mail communications and invitations to social gatherings that drive soccer moms to Facebook. In addition to the decline in face-to-face conversations, we also see a drop in phone calls, e-mails (Perez, 2009) and even text messages as people turn to sites such as Facebook as their primary communications medium. Studies show that face-to-face interaction is essential in the maintenance and strengthening of close friend and family ties (Haythornthwaite, 2001) and what some academics call the “tightness of intimate sphere”(Ling & Stald, 2010). Personal one-to-one communication devices such as mobile phones are seen to strengthen bonds with close friends and family, unlike public broadcasts on SNS. Not only have Generation Y and Z moved away from e-mail and voice communications, we’ve seen large numbers of baby-boomers and Gen X use “weak tie” SNS technologies to communicate with family and friends (Ling & Stald, 2010; Perez, 2009; Smith, 2009).
Even before Web2.0 and the Facebook revolution, academics such as Papacharissi and Rubin recognised the urgency to better understand the personal, social, and communicational changes brought about by the vast increase in CMC usage (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). Their 10 year old research, (before the current SNS stampede) showed those comfortable with face-to-face discussions and who had traditional social networks, mainly used the Internet for informational purposes. For those who struggled socially with face-to-face communications used the Internet as a “functional alternative to interpersonal communications or to fill in time” (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). Papacharissi and Rubin also found links between those who had social or interpersonal problems or dissatisfied with their real-world lives, often found greater affinity with Internet communities. Those early Internet academics confirmed the traditional “computer nerd” stereotype of 1990’s, where those with similar interests could meet, communicate freely and build virtual communities and quality relationships online (Barak & Sadobasky, 2008; Wellman & Gulia, 1999).
However, as we progressed into the Web 2.0 era (Wikipedia, 2010) and the uptake of broadband connectivity (ABS, 2010), the Internet became popular and appealing to mainstream people and social extroverts (boyd & Ellison, 2007). No longer the realm of the computer nerd, Internet connected computers are now found in most homes in the developed world (, 2010). In fact there are now more Internet enabled SNS connected mobile phones than Desktop PCs (Perez, 2010). Smartphones such as the iPhone (Apple, 2010) are now commonplace CMC SNS devices (Nielsen, 2010) and are no longer the domain of “computer nerds” and other early adopters of social networking. A recent study of 172 college students found 97% of them had a Facebook account, and spent an average of 47 minutes a day socialising, with the majority having between 200 and 400 friends (Sheldon, 2008). Sheldon’s 2008 research examined traditional theories of introverts and the use of CMC technologies from the 1990’s and compared them to today’s use of modern SNS sites with respect to introverts and extroverts. Sheldon’s Facebook research indicates a “rich-gets-richer” hypothesis, where those who are socially active off-line and typically extroverted, have greater social interaction on-line with more friends on Facebook. Results revealed introverts tended to go to Facebook when bored or to “feel less lonely”, but not to meet new people. Research also proposed that introverts logging into Facebook tended not to “self-disclose” themselves enough to form new relationships. Thus in many ways we see real-life face-to-face communities migrate large proportions of their free-time towards SNS technologies, and closely mimic traditional off-line everyday behaviour of introverts and extroverts (Sheldon, 2008).
As we migrate larger amounts of time (both free and working) from the off-line face-to-face to on-line SNS, many academics and sociologists raise the vexing question, “are we being too social?”(Gourlay, 2010; Greenfield, 2009; Hamilton, 2009; Nie & Lutz, 2010; Rideout, et al., 2010) Since ever growing percentages of the general population are using SNS, many question the excessive popularity of this medium. Has SNS become too popular, are we spending too much time on Facebook instead of interacting face-to-face (Ostrow, 2010)? If trends continue, our face-to-face social interaction skills will continue to decline, our close family ties may weaken our public and peer group verbal communications will decrease, and ultimately our ability to interact intimately will suffer.  So what makes Facebook so popular, (Coopes, 2010) what attracts people of all ages to this new medium?
Facebook started life in 2004 as an online college yearbook, with student photo albums, profiles and the ability to post comments on your profile and that of your classmates (Mashable & Yadav, ND). In 2006 this winning formula was opened to the general public, thus allowing anyone including teenagers to create their own mini blog or profile online. Facebook promotes the making friends, migrating off-line friends online and tracking down old or lost friendships once separated by time and space. It also encourages users to migrate their e-mail contact lists to boost friend numbers. In addition to Facebook becoming a giant network of mini-blogs, they then introduced the News Alert system whereby comments posted on friends’ pages automatically appeared on your home page Wall (Thompson, 2008). These frequent Wall updates provided instant group-wide communications, fostering  social recognition by your peers, mass publicity and notoriety, all of which is particularly attractive to youth in western societies (boyd, 2007). The volume of e-mail communications emanating from Facebook was traditionally high, with every post appearing on your Wall an e-mail was sent (Gibs, 2009). However in February 2010 Facebook stopped sending alerts, dramatically reducing e-mails received (O’Neill, 2010). This reduction in Spam forced users to login into Facebook to read Wall comments, further driving up traffic and time spent on the site (Dougherty, 2010).  
In addition to Facebook’s primary focus of collecting friends, the site makes extensive use of Web 2.0 technologies and exploits the strength of “weak cooperation with many” (Aguiton, 2007). The attraction of posting your photo album online, sharing videos, using hundreds of free online games, e-mail and on-line chat provides a “one-stop” time consuming communications and entertainment environment. People are now entertained whilst being “social” with their on average 130 friends (Facebook, 2010). Behavioural scientists believe the maximum number of so-called “friends” we can possibly handle is 150 (Dunbar, 1993; Thompson, 2008) and those researching traditional friendship numbers believe that we can only hope to have in the real-world 10 to 20 meaningful relationships (Parks, 2007). Mainstream press also reports the maximum number of meaningful friends we can hope to maintain is the Dunbar number of 150 (Gourlay, 2010). Studies report the majority of students now have between 200 and 400 friends on Facebook (Sheldon, 2008; Walther, Van Der Heide, Kim, Westerman, & Tong, 2008). Consequently are we spreading ourselves too thin and devaluing true friendships and family relationships?
Researchers are now questioning the meaning of the term “friend,” particularly amongst university students, where inflated numbers of superficial friends are commonplace. How could one have 300 plus friends and these be classed as true friends (Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell, & Walther, 2008) ? One might ask “what is the measure of a true friend,” would you invite that person to your wedding, or could you ask that person for help? Or are our Facebook friends simply acquaintances, followers, classmates and casual co-workers which may include a sprinkling of true friends? Some studies of Facebook show a person’s social appearance and their perception of attractiveness relates to an optimum number of Facebook friends. Surprisingly these studies show that for college students, 302 Facebook friends is the optimum number to be “socially attractive.” Simply having a100 friends on Facebook detracts from an individual’s “social attractiveness” and ranks them lower than average. Similarly those with 700 or more friends raised negative concerns that the person may be showing off or may even be considered as desperate (Tong, et al., 2008). 
Unfortunately the addictive nature of Facebook and other SNS mediums propagates numerous problems and a raft of social issues particularly for pubescent and adolescents. Even though some research on college students suggest a positive “social capital” and a method “to keep in touch with old friends, and to maintain or intensify relationships” (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Hargittai, 2007), it’s the negative overuse of SNS where its become an obsession thus diminishing time spent face-to-face with family and real friends that’s a major concern. Looking at research published concerning Facebook and SNS use, many college students who have 300 plus friends maintain them via “weak tie” relationships using freely available CMC technologies (Donath & boyd, 2004; Thompson, 2008). However according to 2010 research, high volume “weak ties” are propagated at the expense of face-to-face socialisations including decreased contact with your real true friends and close family members (Ling & Stald, 2010; Nie & Lutz, 2010; Small & Vorgan, 2008). In addition other neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield are concerned that SNS sites such as Facebook and Bebo were “infantilising the brain into the state of small children by shortening the attention span and providing constant instant gratification” (Greenfield, 2009). It’s felt that adolescents are reading less, and parts of their brains are now being used less for imagination and forming pictorial stories. The lack of reading by the young and the force feeding of multimedia games and social networking, impacts on imagination, social communications, imparting a lack of empathy towards others and often fosters narcissistic behaviour.
Other neuroscientists also believe that the constant over stimulus of multi-dimensional information, obtained in short bursts of data from different directions, and often in different formats, may be linked to conditions such as ADHD and mild forms of autism. Studies also found more mainstream deficiencies such as short attention spans, diminished aptitudes for public speaking, and face-to-face debates, plus a lack of concentration in classroom situations resulted from SNS overuse (Heim, 2009; Small & Vorgan, 2008).  In addition, studies now report that many students using Facebook also recorded lower grade point averages (Hamilton, 2009). Senior academics are also concerned about the over use of SNS and report a lack of concentration in their lectures. In an attempt to curb this obsession, some lecturers have banned the use of laptops in their lectures to reduce distractions and improve student concentration during presentations (Heim, 2009). 
More disturbing however are the activities of youth and new adopters of SNS technologies. Pubescent girls in particular have become highly dependant up on Facebook and other SNS technologies. Co-rumination, the process of discussing your problems with your peers, has now moved from a small handful of close friends in face-to-face semi-confidential discourse, to mass media publicity were hundreds of so-called Facebook friends are instantly informed of your problems  (Matyszczyk, 2009). Immediately your problems are broadcast to 300 plus acquaintances who often want to inflame the situation, spread gossip or be entertained buy your distress. According to academic studies and reports in the general media, the effects of on-line social networking and co-rumination can lead to depression, bullying and in some cases suicide (Hankin, Stone, & Wright, 2010; Kirby, 2009; Rideout, et al., 2010). As the perpetrators of face-to-face bullying move online, they often dominate SNS communities with their extrovert nature, and transfer their off-line bullying to cyber space. Traditional school yard bullying stopped once the student entered the safety of their home, however with cyber bullying there is often no respite. Operating in un-mediated SNS communities, those who would not bully in the real-world, are spectators to online harassment and are often swept up into the event and become active participants in mass bullying incidents (Butler, Kift, & Campbell, 2010). Additionally we see numerous scholars and members of the general public concerned with privacy issues, identity theft, stalking, employer surveillance and other negative uses for SNS sites such as Facebook (Acquisti & Gross, 2006; Raynes-Goldie, 2010; Reis, Ribeiro, Lopes, & Correia, ND)
Many questions are still left unanswered; however we all need to be fearful of the explosive increase in SNS technologies and time spent online. Not only are youth spending large amounts of time socialising online, we see people of all ages using SNS and thus reducing traditional real-world communication skills and devaluing true friendships.         

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