Sociologist: social media is not socially isolating

In a debate over the merits and consequences of living alone, sociologist Keith Hampton argues that social media is not socially isolating:

Neither living alone nor using social media is socially isolating. In 2011, I was lead author of an article in Information, Communication & Society that found, based on a representative survey of 2,500 Americans, that regardless of whether the participants were married or single, those who used social media had more close confidants.

A recent follow-up study, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives” (Pew Research Center), found that the average user of a social networking site had more close ties than and was half as likely to be socially isolated as the average American. Additionally, my co-authors and I, in another article published in New Media & Society, found not only that social media users knew people from a greater variety of backgrounds, but also that much of this diversity was a result of people using these technologies who simultaneously spent an impressive amount of time socializing outside of the house.

A number of studies, including my own and those of Matthew Brashears (a sociologist at Cornell), have found that Americans have fewer intimate relationships today than 20 years ago. However, a loss of close friends does not mean a loss of support. Because of cellphones and social media, those we depend on are more accessible today than at any point since we lived in small, village-like settlements.

Social media has made every relationship persistent and pervasive. We no longer lose social ties over our lives; we have Facebook friends forever. The constant feed of status updates and digital photos from our online social circles is the modern front porch. This is why, in “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” there was a clear trend for those who used these technologies to receive more social support than other people.

You can find this image often thrown around as an insult in online comments: you’re probably just a lonely adult living in your parent’s basement and this explains your “crazy” comments (read: ideas I disagree with). This is an interesting insult as it implies that people are wiser and smarter when they are consistently connected to and interacting with a broader range of people. Hampton suggest this simply isn’t true: people who are involved with social media have plenty of community, even if it comes in an online format.

Hampton could spend more time addressing one common objection to this. People often have a hard time believing the quality of the online relationship is the same as the offline relationship. I often wonder if this is simply because an online relationship is the new norm and it will take time for people to get used to it. Another way to look at it is that this debate may simply be moot in fifty years when today’s teenagers and young adults are the older members of society and they are quite used to online relationships. Hampton gets at it a little by suggesting that people have fewer confidantes but more support but I think there is more here to explore.

One way to think about this is that people have fewer strong ties and more weak ties, roughly translating into fewer confidantes/close friends but many more friends and acquaintances that they have access to. We know this from a number of studies regarding Facebook and SNS use: people tend to make friends only with people they already know, not “weird” or “creepy” strangers (two common descriptors) they are encountering online. Older relational networks likely had bigger clusters in the middle but now people are used to larger, more spread-out networks. And, of course, there are advantages to this kind of network just as there are drawbacks.

The imagery of “online social circles” being the “modern front porch” is also intriguing. What would New Urbanists think as they promote housing that still has front porches in order to help encourage community life? This “modern front porch” is a little different: physical proximity matters a lot less (so more interaction based on shared interests that geographically based concerns?), face-to-face interaction matters less, there are probably shorter but perhaps more frequent interactions, and you just can’t invite people into your house online (what would the equivalent be?).

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