Is MySpace Good for Society? A Freakonomics Quorum

Two little words — “social networking” — have become a giant buzzphrase over the past couple of years, what with the worldwide march of Facebook and headline-ready stories about Web-assisted suicides. So what’s the net effect of social networking?

We gathered a group of wise people who spend their days thinking about this issue — Martin Baily, Danah Boyd, Steve Chazin, Judith Donath, Nicole Ellison, and William Reader, — and asked them this question:

Has social networking technology (blog-friendly phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) made us better or worse off as a society, either from an economic, psychological, or sociological perspective?

Here are their replies.

Nicole Ellison, assistant professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University:

I believe the benefits provided by social network sites such as Facebook have made us better off as a society and as individuals, and that, as they continue to be adopted by more diverse populations, we will see an increase in their utility. Anecdotal evidence of positive outcomes from these technologies — such as political activities organized via Facebook or jobs found through LinkedIn — is well-known, but now a growing corpus of academic research on social networks sites supports this view as well.

Over the last three years, our research team at Michigan State University has examined the use of Facebook by undergraduate students. Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe, and I have used surveys, interviews, and automated capture of the MSU Facebook site to try to understand how and why students use Facebook.

Our original motivation was to better understand why individuals would voluntarily use a site that, based on media reports, offered them only a way to disclose information they shouldn’t disclose, collect hundreds of “friends” they didn’t know, and waste time better spent studying. What we found surprised us. Our survey included questions designed to assess students’ “social capital,” a concept that describes the benefits individuals receive from their relationships with others. Undergraduates who used Facebook intensively had higher bridging social capital scores than those who didn’t, and our longitudinal data show that Facebook use preceded these social capital gains.

Bridging social capital reflects the benefits we receive from our “weak ties” — people we don’t know very well but who provide us with useful information and ideas. These students were using Facebook to increase the size of their social network, and therefore their access to more information and diverse perspectives. Our interview data confirmed these findings, with participants commenting on how the affordances of Facebook helped them maintain or strengthen relationships: they used the site to look up old high school acquaintances, to find out information about people in their classes or dorms that might be used to strike up a conversation, to get contact information for friends, and many other activities.

These aren’t the kinds of Facebook activities you are likely to read about in the media, which have encouraged widespread public concern about Facebook use by young people. Yes, there have been cases in which students have shown poor judgment regarding their profile disclosures. However, tools that enable us to engage in online self-presentation and connect with others will be increasingly part of our social and professional landscape, as social network sites continue to be embraced by businesses, non-profits, civic groups, and political organizations that value the connections these tools support. IBM, for instance, has created an internal social network site, “Beehive,” to encourage more collaboration and communication across teams. In India, Babajob harnesses social networking tools to pair employers with those who seek work. We will continue to see these trends grow as social networking features are employed for fun, profit, and social good.

Social technologies never have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects, which is why social scientists dread questions like these. In considering the effects of social network sites, it is clear that there are many challenges to work through – the increasing commercialization of this space, the need to construct strong privacy protections for users, and safety issues – but I believe the benefits we receive as a society provided by these tools far outweigh the risks.

William Reader, professor of psychology at Sheffield Hallam University and social networking site researcher:

From a psychological point of view, it is difficult to answer the question with any degree of certainty; the technology is simply too new and the research too equivocal. However some (such as Barry Wellman) have suggested that social capital hasn’t really declined, but has simply moved online. As our social networks are becoming increasingly more geographically fragmented, social network sites are a useful way for us to keep in touch and seek social contact with our friends.

Some doom-mongers have suggested that social networking technologies will eventually lead to a society in which we no longer engage in face-to-face contact with people. I don’t see it. Face-to-face contact is, I believe, very important for the formation of intimate relationships (and most of us crave those). The reason for this is that friendships represent a considerable burden on our time, and our physical and emotional resources. Friends are, therefore, a big investment, and we want to be pretty sure that any friend is prepared to invest as much in us as we are in them. We therefore monitor potential friends for signals of their investment in us, and some of the best indicators of people’s investment in us are those that we experience face to face.

Shared attitudes are important for friendship. We know that people like to associate with people who are like them, a predilection termed “homophily” (love of the same). The more similar we are to our friends, the less room there is for conflicts of interest. This is why I believe that social networking will never replace face-to-face communication in the formation of close friendships. Talk is cheap. Anyone can post “u r cool” on someone’s “wall,” or “poke” them on Facebook, but genuine smiles and laughs are a much more reliable indicators of someone’s suitability as a faithful friend.

To return to the notion of social capital, we know that people are increasingly “meeting” people on social network sites before they meet them face to face. As a result of this, when many students begin university, they find themselves with a group of ready-made acquaintances. Given people’s preferences for people who are like them, it could be that friendship networks become increasingly homogeneous. Is this a bad thing? It might be if, by choosing potential friends via their Facebook profiles, it means that folk cut themselves off from serendipitous encounters with those who are superficially different from them, ethnically, socio-economically, and even in terms of musical taste.

So has social networking technology made us better or worse off? My view is neither utopian nor dystopian: social networking technologies are doubtless changing society. But like anything — apart from motherhood and apple pie — whether this is good or bad depends upon what kind of society you value.

Steve Chazin, former Apple marketing director and current chief marketing officer at DimDim.com:

I believe social networking technology has changed our lives for the better, but at a cost. Social networking tools have made it nearly effortless for me to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues. I can know what’s on their minds (MySpace), who else they know (Facebook/LinkedIn), and even what they are doing at this very moment (Twitter). On the other hand, I’m not sure I need to know any of that.

Instant Messaging, e-mail, and voice-over-Internet-protocol has made it possible for me to be in touch with more people than I will ever meet in person, yet each one of those contacts often requires me to return a call, respond to an e-mail, or reply to an IM. The Outlook “Out of Office” flag doesn’t stop the mail from coming, it just postpones the response. And there will come a time when we’ll hold all our meetings on the Web, have truly immersive face-to-face video conversations, and experience a fusion of our real and cyber worlds when Second Life becomes second nature. We’re just not there yet.

While all humans need to feel connected to each other or to some cause, there are also times when we simply want to disconnect, and disconnecting is becoming increasingly hard thanks to social networking technology. As one who was bitten early by the Blackberry bug, I can attest that the pull of these wireless electronic leashes is often too strong to resist. Today, we experience a feeling of isolation when our Internet connections go down, revealing just how dependent we’ve become on the connective power of the Web.

I remember one day a few years ago when our office phones and Internet stopped working. No e-mail, no voicemail, no Facebook, no Skype, and no Twitter. People came out of their offices and talked. I enjoyed that day.

Martin Baily, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the McKinsey Global Institute:

Powerful new technologies provide great benefits, but they also change the way we live, and not always in ways that everyone likes. An example is the spread of air conditioning, which makes us more comfortable, but those who grew up before its invention speak fondly of a time when everyone sat on the front porch and talked to their neighbors rather than going indoors to stay cool and watch TV. The declining cost of information processing and communication represents a powerful new technology, with social networking as the most recent service to be provided at modest cost. It can be expected to bring pluses and minuses.

New social networking services are counted in our measure of G.D.P., and will likely show up as an increase in productivity. Their effect is not large enough yet to move the needle by much, but it will be in the data, although in a rather strange way. Sites such as Facebook are free to users, with the “price” of using the service being the online ads viewed. This is, of course, the same way we “pay for” most television programming. This approach provides only a rough estimate of the economic value of the service.

But will social networking sites really improve the quality of people’s lives? The pluses include easier contacts with friends, and increased chances to make new friends and create a community, as well as find romantic relationships. Even the advertising may be a plus, because it is targeted to the particular interests of the user.

The minuses are that all of this sharing can be dangerous, through gossip and potential abuse of the services. Examples include reported suicides linked to malicious gossip circulated on a social network. Some people become addicted to life on the computer screen, and withdraw from personal contact — it’s a long way from people sitting on the porch talking to friends and neighbors.

Social networking sites are affecting the labor market as well, because recruiters evaluating young professionals applying for jobs are now hacking into applicants’ profiles, and making hiring decisions based on profile photos in which applicants are drunk or inappropriately dressed.

I am by inclination a technology optimist, believing that the bad things will be filtered out over time and net benefits will emerge. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware.

Judith Donath, associate professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab:

The good: social networking technologies make it easier to keep up with a large circle of acquaintances and meet new people. They provide a venue for online socializing, as well as for coordinating in-person meetings.

The bad: they devalue the meaning of “friend.” Our traditional notion of friendship embraces trust, support, compatible values, etc. On social network sites, a “friend” may simply be someone on whose link you have clicked.

The ugly: for teens, who can be viciously competitive, networking sites that feature a list of one’s best friends and space for everyone to comment about you can be an unpleasant venue for social humiliation and bullying. These sites can make the emotional landmines of adolescence concrete and explicit.

The big picture: social networking technologies support and enable a new model of social life, in which people’s social circles will consist of many more, but weaker, ties. Though we will continue to have some strong ties (i.e., family and close friends), demographic changes, such as frequent household moves and the replacement of friends and family with market services for tasks such as daycare, are diminishing the role of social ties in everyday life. Weak ties (e.g., casual acquaintances, colleagues) may not be reliable for long-term support; their strength instead is in providing a wide range of perspectives, information, and opportunities. As society becomes increasingly dynamic, with access to information playing a growing role, having many diverse connections will be key.

Social networking technologies provide people with a low cost (in terms of time and effort) way of making and keeping social connections, enabling a social scenario in which people have huge numbers of diverse, but not very close, acquaintances. Does this makes us better as a society? Perhaps not — we can imagine this being a selfish and media-driven world in which everyone vies for attention and no one takes responsibility for one another. But perhaps it does — we can also imagine this being a world in which people are far more accepting of diverse ways and beliefs, one in which people are willing to embrace the new and different.

Danah Boyd, Ph.D. candidate at the School of Information, University of California-Berkeley, and fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society:

Social media (including social network sites, blog tools, mobile technologies, etc.) offer mechanisms by which people can communicate, share information, and hang out. As an ethnographer traipsing across the U.S., I have heard innumerable stories of how social media has been used to bring people together, support learning, and provide an outlet for creative expression.

These sites are tools. They can and have been used for both positive and negative purposes. For homosexual teens in rural America, they can be tools for self-realization in the battle against depression. Thanks to such tools, many teens have chosen not to take the path of suicide, knowing that there are others like them. For teens who are unable to see friends and family due to social and physical mobility restrictions, social media provides a venue to build and maintain always-on intimate communities. For parents whose kids have gone off to college, social media can provide a means by which the family can stay in meaningful contact through this period of change.

This is not to say that all of the products of social media are positive. We can all point to negative consequences: bullying, gossip mongering, increased procrastination, etc. Our news media loves to focus on these. Even the positive stories that do run often have a negative or sensationalist angle, such as those who used Twitter to track the California fires. Unfortunately, those who do not understand social media look to the news, see the negative coverage, and declare all social media evil.

It’s easy to look at a lot of elements of today’s society and cry foul. It’s equally easy to look at the new technology that we don’t understand and blame it as the cause for all social ills. It’s a lot harder to accept that social media is mirroring and magnifying all of the good, bad, and ugly about today’s society, shoving it right back in our faces in the hopes that we might face the underlying problems. Technology does not create bullying; it simply makes it more visible and much harder for adults to ignore.

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  1. Mike says:

    One interesting use of facebook which might contribute something to this discussion was highlighted in the Chicago Tribune’s reporting on the tragedy at Northern Illinois University. After the shootings, cell phone usage spiked, and many people relied upon facebook to check up on their friends and families when they couldn’t use their phones. Facebook gives people a forum for quickly connecting with loved ones and letting them know that they are o.k., or sharing in grief.

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  2. Dorsey Shaw says:

    for great insight into the “network” check out this film

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-9198224502900953337

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  3. Stuart says:

    What about the equally interesting question: are sociologists good for society?

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  4. Niru says:

    This is a fascinating dilemma in our society. I tutor kids for a state-mandated achievement test. There were eighth-grade students who were given a writing exercise to complete the thought, “I can’t wait until. . .” One of the 14-year-old boys wrote his essay as if he were texting his best friend. Most of the language consisted of “2″ instead of “to” and “May-B” instead of “maybe”. Communication has become very challenged. In addition, what should be formal written language is influenced by a fusion of IM vernacular and pop/hip-hop music.

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  5. Stacey P says:

    With all the networks out there, and after valentine’s day, I just found this interesting site– http://www.shouldibreakupwithher.com

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  6. Cathy P says:

    I was skeptical about these sites until a friend asked me to join Facebook. I have found that Facebook has improved my real social life. As we send each other messages, eggs, flowers, etc. on Facebook, my friends and I also realize that we want to spend more time together in person– so we do. I’ve gotten dates on Facebook after many date-free months. I have also reconnected with old friends. I’ve just found it to be a joyful thing–another layer of connection.

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  7. Tom Dehnel says:

    The ability for us to link up online and share information with others is fantastic for purposes of keeping in touch and maintaining basic or previously-cultivated friendships. But for a business person (that’s you), you need to be able to ask if something like this is worth your time. To create a significant presence, you’d need to spend hours (and money) futzing around with nonsensical social networking applications. In that amount of time, you could have done some real work, researching the local market, scouting potential listings, and making contacts in person. Those contacts are way more likely to result in a sale than some spurious online friend. Social networks also require you to give them your information so they can display it on their site in a way that they choose. You lose control of the look and feel of the Christine Dehnel brand. Do you think quality brands like Nike or Mercedes-Benz are messing around with half-assed online social networking? Get real. They’re busy working on being professionals.

    This applies in your personal life as well. If your goal is to meet new friends, do you want to spend time and energy worrying about what your Facebook page looks like? Is it a good idea to waste time going through pages upon pages of potential “friends” that have spent hours carefully crafting advertisements for themselves? Again, get real. As the result of 100,000+ years of human evolution, your brain is really good at evaluating people that are right in front of you. Use it. Meet real people.

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  8. TD says:

    Dehnel, you are *right on*.
    I’d just add this: it is “worth your time” if you don’t have much else going on. Facebook is an outstanding way to discover new music, think of interesting things to do (including Life Projects, such as live in Hungary for a year or work on a goat farm), and find a romantic partner. These are all acute problems for young people. If your country is experiencing the biggest increase of young people since the Baby Boom, then something like Facebook will take off. Adults–loosely defined, anyone older than 30–tend to find these problems both much easier to solve *and* much less important. The real question is what tools these adults will need in ten years or so.

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