Hua (Helen) Wang, & Barry Wellman (2009). Social Connectivity in America. Changes in Adult Friendship Network Size from 2002 to 2007 American Behavioral Scientist
The story so far, can be summarized as follows: since the beginning of the Web, a significant amount of researches has being focusing on the inverse correlation between online connectivity and face-to-face interactions. In social sciences, this is known as “the Internet Paradox”, after the title of an influential article published by Robert Kraut (1998). In a nutshell, Internet can be regarded as a “social technology that reduces social involvement”. Consequently user’s well-being and social ties could be negatively affected by computer-mediated communication.
This argument was so compelling – and so remenescent of the common sense claim that “since computers are around, people don’t talk anymore” – that the Internet paradox long outlived its scientific credibility. Some years later, Kraut himself made amends for it in a follow-up article, admitting that his argument had to be “rivisited”. He went back to observe the very same families of the previous study and found the negative effect of online communication on social life had disappeared. Not only, but he even detected positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being. A hell of a retraction, if you ask me.
Now, as epistemologists know, bad theories are difficult to flush out. Especially when you have people who can exploit them to serve their political agenda – or to spin themselves a cheap media story, as recently a certain British fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine did.
Luckily for us, Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman has been fighting against this research trend since its first apperence. And luckily for us, these days he seems to be prevailing. His entire production of the recent years can be read as a painstaking refutation of what some have called the “hydraulic” vision of Internet use (Nie, Hillygus & Erbring, 2002). Unlike fluid mechanics, where the level of liquid in communicating vessels is constant, social connectivity cannot be described as a constant number of ties, to be allocated between the “real” and the “virtual”. Time online is largely a social activity that does not compete with face-to-face social time. It rather complements it.
Together with Helen Wang, Wellman has just concocted a new article, soon to be published in the American Behavioral Scientist. Two national surveys (from the Center for the Digital Future, World Internet Project) are used to analyze friendship networks of American adults. How does intensive Internet use change the number of friends? Putnam’s Bowling alone (2000) notwithstanding, friendships seem to be on the rise in the period taken into account (2002 to 2007). This trend is general, Internet non-users and heavy users alike. Yet, heavy Internet users are those with the most friends both on- and off-line. The authors believe that the growing number of friends is partly linked to the proliferation of social media and to ubiquitous connections. These technological tools and features afford ample opportunities for fostering pre-existing ties and developing new ones.
But, as usual, the problem here is the classic “what causes what”. Does heavy Internet use create more friendships, or do people who have more friends use Internet more frequently? The authors seem to believe in a reciprocal feedback process: “Those with more friends use the Internet more to keep in contact; those with heavy Internet use develop more friendship”. The underlying assumption is that as Internet use becomes more and more normalized and integrated in everyday activities, the boundaries between on- and off-line are blurring.
Wang and Wellman conclude by hinting a co-evolution of computer networks and social structures: “We believe that the nature of friendship networks will continue to evolve alongside with the Internet, the transformation of social structure, and the cultural norms around these increasingly mediated communication practices. As the Internet is being incorporated into people’s everyday life and is becoming an indispensable aspect of their social spheres for many, we suggest that what appears as socially isolating from the view of traditional group-based analysis, can be fully social in the context of a network society”.
Kraut, R. Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S, Mukophadhyay,T & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist. 53 (9), 10171-031.
Nie, N. H., Hillygus, D. S., & Erbring, L. (2002). Internet use, interpersonal relations, and sociability: A time diary study. In B. Wellman & C. Haythornthwaite (Eds.), The Internet in Everyday Life (pp. 215-243).Blackwell.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.