Online Social Networks: Counting Friends or Friends That Count?

by Marianne Richmond on September 25, 2006

I was reading about Friends For Families on TechCrunch the other day and my initial reaction was, how pathetic that it has come to this. Friends for Families is described by TechCrunch as a kind of for families.

TechCrunch references a study as a "rationale" for the site’s creation that says that 25% of people say that they have no close friends; although in what is unfortunately an all too common practice in research study reporting, we are not given any context in which to evaluate that statement. A visit to the Friends for Families newsletter says that "several national news headlines have recently called attention to the fact that people generally have about 50% fewer friends than they did a decade ago." Again, what is the context? What headlines? What people? Why are these kinds of statements made in a total vacuum? But that could be the topic of its own post….

Back to Friends for Families.So the idea seems to be that you can get instant friends for your whole family from the comfort of your own home.You can eliminate the annoying anxiety of actually trying to establish relationships over time and through interactions and all for the low everyday price of $20. As TechCrunch notes, a for the whole family.

So…what does this mean, if anything. According to the US web stats company Compete, 2 out of every 3 people online in June 2006 visited a social network site. This is over a 100% increase since January 2004. USA Today headlines, Meet My 5000 Closest Pals which references the "friending" process as practiced on MySpace. Of course, the 5000 friends on MySpace aren’t all real friends…are they?

According to Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the friend collection is just that, a collection of "how man people you can put onto your network. Some of it is seen as a proxy for popularity."

Ands before you start to think, well these are teenagers and college kids, there is a 40 year old man quoted in the USA Today article that articulates his rules for his "top 8" friends list. My own recent forays into MySpace as part of the GourmetStation Get Out of the Dog House Video Contest can substantiate, there is lots of highschool behavior going on well beyond highschool years.

So, although there are headlines that say Americans Have Fewer Friends Researchers Say, I think it depends on your definition of friends. Robert Putnam thinks we are bowling alone and that there is declining social capital as we become less engaged in our communities. It would seem though that the increase in social network "friends" might indicate otherwise…that the definition of communities and friends might be different but that the benefits of social capital and connection such as better physical and mental health, would exist on line as well as off line.

Henry Jenkins of MIT and author of Convergence Culture uses the term civic media for what we may call social media,  "media which contributes to our sense of civic engagement, which strengthens our social ties to our communities — physical and virtual — and which reinforces the social contracts which insures core values of a democratic society." He writes that young people may be increasingly alienated from traditional journalism because the coverage of the communities that they inhabit and the issues that they care about are not recognized as important. He points out that traditional media coverage of MySpace, Video Games, and DOPA doesn’t reflect their perspectives but only the perspective of adults .

So, we have a new social network, Friends for Families that for $20 will match your family with other families and deliver new friends to your door,  presumably wrapped in brown paper so that your neighbors that you probably haven’t met because you were online ordering friends, won’t know where they came from. And the t-shirt says, "Plays well with strangers." If this

And we have MySpace friends which mean different things to different networkers. Oh, forgot to mention that there are helpers on MySpace, MySpace Friend Bot and Buddy Generator and even Google Ads to jump the friend learning curve. So, are we bowling alone? Or if we are participating in online communities are we engaged. connected and building social capital?

Well, it depends….are we counting friends or making friends that count?  Depends on what you mean by count…..

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