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

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.


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.

Sean Blagsvedt, CEO

I'd like to add 2 points:
First, social networks will increasingly define how we present ourselves to others and thus, have the potential to shape human behavior in ways that few other mediums ever have. As a software designer, I personally find this scary and terribly exciting.

With, we hope to leverage the popular social networks to induce 'competitive altruism' and encourage acts that help poor people. For example, when an Infosys worker in Bangalore registers and recommends the non-literate sister of his maid to all of his orkut friends, those friends will see his good deed (and hopefully copy it) and his maid's sister will hopefully land a job, earning more than she would have by simply walking her neighborhood. The facebook app Causes ( does something similar when it makes membership in your favorite cause into a small piece of your facebook homepage, thereby broadcasting this action and at the least, increasing the awareness of your cause among people you know on facebook. I would venture that the increased political interest and perhaps activism that Saa anecdotally noted may in fact by a direct outcome of this medium (and something that's certainly worth studying).

Second, social networks have the potential to make markets where social connections matter MUCH more efficient. Just as the online availability of buyers and sellers, credit cards and cheap shipping made Internet shopping sites like among the most efficient in the world, it is my hope that socially dependent markets can become that efficient as well. This efficiency in the 'dating' market was the original inspiration behind friendster where John Abrams was trying to make it super easy to discover which friend of friend would make a good date for his users.

These markets extend beyond dating though; our company was inspired by an insight of Prof Krishna's of Duke University ( that the use of social connections among the poor to find better jobs may be the most important way they escape poverty. It is our goal that with by gleaning social connections from sources like, orkut, facebook and eventually the telcos directly, coupled with increasing mobile penetration among the poor (that importantly enables phone screening), we can bring more efficiency and opportunities in the worldwide informal job market (e.g. "Here are the profiles of 50 receptionists that your friends of friends have recommended in Cairo").

How we get to this efficiency of course will require lots of experimentation and many failures but I'm confident that we'll see more socially dependent markets radically changed by the social network sites in the years to come. It is a good time to be a software designer. :-)


Tish Grier

re #16--actually, one of the biggest challenges is having control over your identity and content on a social network (what you publish there, your profile, your "friends" list.) On many social networks you might be able to remove information, but you cannot completely delete your account.

Social networking sites are kind of like Hotel California (or roach motels)--you can check in any time you like, but you can never (really) leave...(or at least not all of you)

Which brings up many, many questions regarding personal privacy as well as identity control (yes, I know about Open ID...) Social networking tools might make it easier for us to keep in touch with others, but what must we give away to the social network in order to be able to to this? And who retains control over the user-generated content we leave there? We, the folks who put it there, just might not. Nor do we control what the site builders/administartors do with it--that is, unless we squak our heads off like Facebook memebers did with Beacon. But we don't always know what smaller networks might do with our information when we abandon our profiles any more than we know what Rupe Murdoch's going to with all that MySpace stuff.



I'm an older grad student (returning after several years in the work force) and I find Facebook to be "worth my time." It allows me to keep in touch with a large number of friends quickly and conveniently. It also allows me to keep track of where I've met people and when, and has expanded my ability to remember names, faces and conversations with people I have only met once or twice.

Perhaps the most important effect I've noticed, however, is the impact that Facebook has had on the conversations that take place in real life, particularly in the area of politics. The site promotes discussion and debate, and it is definitely spilling over into the real world. When I was in college several years ago, my peers never discussed politics despite the fact that it was a Presidential election year. This year, it's much different, and people are willing not just to discuss, but also to take sides. I've heard my parents' generation complain that kids these days just don't care... I think Facebook is changing that.


Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

Insofar as it seems that you can't actually get anywhere in life without knowing people, anything that aides in social networking has to be beneficial. In fact, it will likely help out those who, like me, have never been comfortable with social networking (which may explain my current lack of employment).


Some responses:
Facebook isn't changing the meaning of "friend". A Facebook friend I met online and haven't met in real life is just that - a "Facebook friend". We (college students) actually use that term to distinguish people we know online from friends, acquaintances, etc.
I agree with Reader in that social contact is necessary. I don't think I know anyone who would rather talk to people only online than on the phone or face-to-face.
Also, although I (and many people I know) made Facebook friends before coming to college, it's pretty hard to only befriend people you met online. There's dorm life, classes, clubs, teams, and all sorts of ways for people to communicate and make friends without Facebook - that's what happens when you live in close proximity to 5000 other people. The interesting thing is at what point in a relationship you decide to friend someone on facebook - friending a new acquaintance is like letting them in on a new level of privacy where they can suddenly know your phone number, who you're dating, who you know in common, and what party they went to last night... without having them tell you. There's "facebook stalking", which is usually done innocently, but can still be strange when it comes up in conversation. Facebook life and real life are sort of like circles on a Venn diagram, but the intersection is only definable sometimes...


Carter f Smith

I see a tendency in this thread toward focusing on specific spcial networking sites. This limits the ability to examine and understand the phenomenon. MySpace replaced Friendster as the leader by offering what we the people demanded, and Facebook, LinkedIn, and others are trying to (and succeeding in their efforts to) redefine the space. The collection of people we relate to and incorporation of communication tools are the keys to success in this space, not "the site."

These sites may not last forever, but we have always been engaged in social networking -- now supported by technology. The top 5 SN sites could crash and burn tomorrow and we would still do what we do. It's a revolution, and it's here, now. Let's usher in The Relationship Economy!


#15, BBSs in the 80s and early 90s were social networks too, if you had a modem back then. The big difference today is the "friend grid" which is a simply a toplist of picture links, not a huge leap forward technologically.

The biggest challenge social networking faces now is the "private" profile.


I've found these contributions and the reader comments very interesting. I've posted a longer response at my blog ( Two quick thoughts: I don't share Will Reader's concern that students will be using Facebook to create a ready-made social circle of friends before coming to campus and thus insulating themselves from new perspectives. If anything, I think we can argue that FB is being used to expose students to larger and more heterogenous networks ("weak ties")... and thus, new perspectives and information. Second, I believe that most FB users do distinguish between FB Friends and actual friends. "Friends" in the FB context seems to be just a different way of saying "contact." It may be that our everyday language will adjust to this - for instance, we'll start referring to "friends" vs "actual friends." This doesn't scare me because it implies that we differentiate between the two. It would be more concerning to me if we did not.


Tom Dehnel

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.



"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."

a company like nike needs to understand, track & respond to the trends prevalent in their markets, so i'd be willing to bet that they pay attention to half-assed online social networking sites--mercedes-benz? maybe not so much, but that's not their market...

Jack Heath

Thanks for a fascinating piece on such an important topic. Back in 1997 we set up a web-based service in Australia to tackle the then escalating rates of youth suicide which thankfully are now down by 46%. We don't know how much we contributed to the decline but with a total population of only 21 million we get more than 200,000 unique visits each month and are looking to launch later this year in the US where around 3 million young Americans attempt suicide each year. The new site will incoporate more social networking features as we know how powerful this can be in reaching young people that no one could ever reach before. While our current site is three years old it still can have a powerful impact as this quote from 22 year old Daniel Taylor shows: "With inadequate and near impossible access to information and youth-friendly services to help young people through tough times, being a young person like me living in an isolated rural community has its challenges.
Throughout my high school years I suffered from what I now know was depression. There were times when I seriously considered taking my own life. I could not explain what I was going through to other people, and even if I could, felt they would not understand. I felt alone in sorting out my problems, but I didn't have a clue how to do this. Then, just when I thought my life could not get more complicated, I found myself trying to support three of my closest friends who were suicidal to the point where they were self-harming.
Helping them seemed like an impossible mission.
One of them made a comment to me that stays with me to this day. She said, "If you tell anyone about what I tell you, you will regret it. I won't just attempt to kill myself, I will actually do it." At that point I felt I could not seek help from anyone at the risk of losing a friend who I considered a sister-not people in the community
or even phone counselling services.
So I turned to the Internet in the hope that I could find some information to tell me what I should do. I came across the Reach Out! website and couldn't believe what I found: an easy-to-navigate website with fact sheets covering a range of issues and information on where to find help.
I cannot put into words how much the Reach Out! website has changed my life. For the first time I was able to understand what I was experiencing, and learned strategies for helping myself, and my friends, get through. My three friends are currently going okay, and have gone on to get the help that they needed.
I thought I was alone. So, so alone, like I was
the only person who had to deal with this, and now I know that was, and is, far from the truth. But for those who don't know about Reach Out!, there are many young people who have not realised this yet." daniel taylor


Joseph Hunkins

Interesting question but I'm wondering how relevant it is to ask if it's good or bad? Social networking is hugely influential is here to stay and will grow much more important in our daily lives. Good or bad we need to look at how this is changing things and *then* start applying the value judgements.


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.

Dorsey Shaw

for great insight into the "network" check out this film


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

Stacey P

With all the networks out there, and after valentine's day, I just found this interesting site--

Cathy P

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.


Mercedes-Benz at one point had a presence in Second Life. Like most corporations who entered the virtual 3-D world, the brand was irrelevant. It turns out that the creative and imaginative capacity of the tools give people interesting lives, and once in the virtual world are far more interested in gaining access to other fascinating people. That renders inert most typical notions of materialism, branding, and prestige. That capacity to demonstrate one's creative powers to thousands or millions of people internationally constitutes a new social capital that upends traditional social structures. Hence, the proverbial unkempt bachelor living in Mom's basement can be a land baron or venerated warrior in virtual environments, a reality that is establishing a parallel hierarchy of meta-cachet in the metaverse. Some of those guys in their underwear will actually convert that capital into something useful ... right? Anshe Chung has made more than a million real dollars now using Second Life. Surely others will follow suit. Or maybe get a suit. Or geezus get up from the computer and go douche every few days people. Christ on a handcart, I swear you smell like Cheetos.


Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

Even this is a kind of social networking. I have had people who read comments here and on other blogs come to my blog and leave comments there.