Greetings. My name is Malcolm Parks and I'll be joining John and Ken to discuss this topic at an event at Pacific University on April 17th. I'm a communication researcher at the University of Washington, where I've been looking into online and offline social networks and relationships for some time.
Facebook, now the world's largest online social networking site, enrolled its 200 millionth member earlier this month. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, Hi5, Orkut, Twitter, and many others have become so successful that we forget they are all less than 5-6 years old. It's far too soon to have definitive answers, but we do know social networking sites (SNS) raise some intriguing questions about the nature of social relationships and how it might be changing. Here are a few ideas to get us thinking...
Does Facebook Change the Way People Relate to Each Other? When researchers like me think about the social impact of communication technologies like Facebook, we try to look beyond simple things like saving time or money. Instead we ask four questions about SNS like Facebook and MySpace:
Too soon to know for sure, but here are some of the things we might consider. Right off the top, let's ask what it means to be a "friend" in an online setting like Facebook. Research shows that most people list 2-20 friends in offline settings. But the average number of "Facebook friends" is typically 300-500. So who are all these people? Acquaintances? Friends of friends? Lapsed friends?
Thanks to everything from personal profiles to google searches, it is possible to learn more about people before first meeting them. Some have suggested that this might make us more critical-- more quickly sorting down to those few people who match some preset criterion. Perhaps we harshly winnow out people who might be turn out to be more interesting if they had more of a chance. Also, SNS make others' social connections more clearly visible to us than ever before. What is the impact of that? Does the old adage about judging people by the company they keep take on extra weight? We think it might. We also think that discovering that your friends have friends who belong to groups you don't like might have an impact on how prejudiced your are. If nothing else, SNS and the internet generally have greatly increased contact among members of extended families (yes, that's right-- the net is pro-family!). It also greatly increases access to social support for people dealing with diseases or difficult life changes.
Does Facebook Change What it Means to "Know" Someone? This is one of the more engaging questions for me-- and one that confronts us with basic philosophical questions about what we mean when we say we know another person. Is "knowing" just having information about others? If so, what kinds of information have the greatest knowledge value? Or does true "knowing" unfold in a process of mutual revelation? If so, does having all that additional information from someone's Facebook profile disrupt the process or does it just mean that we start farther along? And what about the information itself? Deception is a universal human behavior, but the internet makes it easier than ever to craft the image one wishes others to have. So do we have more "information" but less real knowledge of others? Are we beginning to assume that all online presentations are somewhat deceptive or, putting a less judgmental spin on it, playful or ironic? These are important questions, but there are two more subtle questions that also interest me. When so much information about us is public, what remains of the private or personal? I'm always surprised that people don't worry more about all the personal information they put up online. Finally, shouldn't we be worrying at least a little about the fact that Facebook and MySpace and many other SNS encourage us to describe ourselves in terms of standardized categories? Are we commodifying ourselves? Maybe we always have, but I'm particularly concerned when I see MySpace users present themselves in terms of product logos and symbols. Do I really "know" you if I know what products and services you consume? If so, what does that say about the nature of what we have become?
Good stuff to think about. I'm looking forward to hearing what others think about these questions.