Study finds significant overlap of online Facebook friends and offline friendships

A new study reinforces a consistent finding about Facebook friendships: people tend to associate online with people they know offline.

On Facebook, all of these complex and differentiated relationships get collapsed — flattened — under the label “friend.” But researchers at UC San Diego wanted to see whether it could figure out — just from people’s Facebook activity — who their closest friends were. They asked a survey group to list their close friends and then, using a model based on comments, messages, wall posts, likes, photo tags, etc. tried to see if they could say whether any given pair of people were close. They could do so accurately 84 percent of the time. These Facebook clues are “successful proxies for such real-world tie strength.”

Jason J. Jones, one of the study’s lead authors, say the findings contradict the common belief that people use Facebook to keep in touch with those whom they would otherwise lose touch with and use other means of communication (such as the phone) for their closest relationships. Rather, Facebook is just another space in which our social lives take place. The researchers found that comments were the most revealing of a friendship’s strength, followed by messages, wall posts, and likes. Least revealing were demographic information, such as having had the same employer or gone to the same school, and being invited to join the same Facebook groups. Additionally, the study’s authors found that public interactions such as comments and wall posts were just as revealing as private messages.

“This is a useful study even if it comes from the ‘duh’ department,” writes social-media theorist Nathan Jurgenson over email. “The notion that the Internet is, or ever really was, some other, cyber, space, is wrong headed.” In other words, of course our Facebook interactions reveal the reality of our friendships — they are part and parcel to our friendships. There aren’t two separate spheres of online and offline, but one continuous reality, which is at various points augmented by technology — the phone or Facebook, for examples — or the tools of the voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Terms like “real world,” “virtual world,” and “IRL,” which the study’s authors rely on heavily, undermine a better understanding of this integration.

This corroborates a consistent finding in academic work about Facebook and social networking sites: users don’t go out and meet a bunch of “random” other users. Rather, they tend to reproduce existing friendship and social networks in the online world. Some of these relationships might have faded away in the past, like making friends with people from grade school or past jobs, but much of the online interaction is a continuation of the interaction that is taking place offline.

The article does contain an interesting ending:

This is all follows pretty neatly from Jurgenson’s point that Facebook is a tool that augments our one reality, not a separate reality altogether. If we understand that Facebook is a space where our friendships occur and develop, we can begin to think about what the contours of that space do to us.

In other words, putting existing relationships in the online sphere can shape these relationships in unique ways. Thus, there is a two-way interaction going on: Facebook allows people to interact but it also shapes that interaction and what might be possible down the road in that relationship.

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