Does sprawl contribute to difficulty for adults in making friends?

One writer suggests the suburbs and their isolated spaces reduce the opportunities for friendship:

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere…

One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. (I live in North Seattle, undoubtedly coded as urban for census purposes, but my walkshed is pretty lame. Meanwhile, a few miles south of me they’re building million-dollar single-family homes square in the middle of a perfect walkshed, right across from the zoo.)

A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. Ideally, cities would be composed of clusters of such walksheds, connected by good public transit…

Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

Five quick thoughts:

  1. There is a lot of emphasis on the nuclear family in the United States, whether in suburbs or other areas. This could be contrasted with other societies that place more emphasis on multigenerational households or living near extended families.
  2. You don’t necessarily have to be in a city to have public spaces or walksheds like these. Many Americans express a preference for small towns and these communities can often be tight knit. Or, you could have denser areas in suburbs that have such public spaces.
  3. The article argues that college is a good example of what can happen when people are put in close proximity. I would argue that college is a very unusual outlier for many Americans where they are forced (they pay for this too) to live in close proximity and then spread out as soon as they get a chance. In fact, many college students try to get out of dorms ASAP while many others are commuters. The residential college experience is not one everyone experiences and it is an unusual setting for relationships.
  4. The broader American emphasis on individualism makes friendships more difficult regardless of public spaces. Think of the frontier or pioneer mentality or our current celebration of mavericks and solo entrepreneurs. Did Steve Jobs need friends? Would Americans have fulfilled their Manifest Destiny if they had stayed in their neighborhoods or small towns?
  5. Does the data back this up? What if Americans are satisfied with their friendships? Does the number of close friends differ by spatial context? This argument is made via anecdote but there are plenty of surveys that ask about friendships. For example, here is a simple table with GSS data on how much satisfaction Americans get from their friendships by spatial context:


The differences in this table are not large but this incomplete analysis suggests people from smaller communities derive more satisfaction from their friendships.

The three conditions sociologists say are crucial for friendship

An article on the difficulty of making good friends after age 30 highlights the conditions sociologists say lead to friendship:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

It is interesting to consider how well this compares with online friendship. Let’s look at Facebook:

1. Proximity. This is virtual proximity where your friends are easy to access and Facebook helpfully tells you what they are up to. It is interesting to note that most friends of Facebook users are people they know from the offline world – there is a lot of overlap between these two realms.

2. Repeated, unplanned interactions. This could happen through wall posts, messages, tagging, and chatting. However, users of Facebook can choose when and how they do this as opposed to consistently running into someone in the offline world. This choice of interaction allows users to participate when and with whom they want in a way that wasn’t possible before.

3. Setting that allows people to let down their guard. Maybe the privacy settings in Facebook allow this but not in the same way as proximity and face-to-face interactions. Facebook is full of impression management where users create the image they want to project to others (this is also true of face-to-face interactions).

All together, Facebook capitalizes on the some of the advantages and difficulties of the early 21st century but it doesn’t replicate the experience of developing friendships in-person.

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.

Battening down the Facebook privacy hatches

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a new study yesterday that suggests Facebook users are paying more attention to their privacy settings, meaning they are editing comments and photos more and being more selective about their friendships:

The report released Friday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that people are managing their privacy settings and their online reputation more often than they did two years earlier. For example, 44 percent of respondents said in 2011 that they deleted comments from their profile on a social networking site. Only 36 percent said the same thing in 2009…

Along those lines is “profile pruning,” which Pew reports is on the rise. Nearly two-thirds of people on social networks said last year that they had deleted friends, up from 56 percent in 2009. And more people are removing their names from photos than two years ago. This practice is especially common on Facebook, where users can add names of their friends to photos they upload…

Women are much more likely than men to restrict their profiles. Pew found that 67 percent of women set their profiles so that only their “friends” can see it. Only 48 percent of men did the same…

Possibly proving that with age comes wisdom, young adults were more likely to post something regrettable than their older counterparts. Fifteen percent of social network users aged 18 to 29 said they have posted something regrettable. Only 5 percent of people over 50 said the same thing.

Several thoughts about this:

1. This isn’t a huge trend: for both deleting comments and friends, a little less than 10% more users did this than two years ago. If this is a long-term trend that keeps going up 10% every few years, this would be especially noteworthy.

2. This is still a low number of people who say they “posted something regrettable.” These figures seem to suggest that many users are ahead of the game here: they are making sure they are being presented in a good light before it could turn into something regrettable. These figures go against a common media image that social media users regularly do crazy things, are always at risk, or don’t know what they are doing.

3. Is privacy the best word to describe all of this? I wonder if we could call this behavior “selective interaction” as it is more about limiting the display of information to certain people rather than hiding information from everyone. If people truly wanted online privacy, they wouldn’t have a Facebook profile in the first place.

4. The removal of friends is interesting. I wonder if this is more of a function of how long one has had Facebook (tied to realizing that one doesn’t really interact with that many people and all of those friends don’t show up in your news feed even if they are updating their information) or changes in life stages (once one leaves high school or college, does one need to remain friends with all of those people you once ran into or thought you might interact with?).

h/t Instapundit

Study: people tend to make friends on Facebook with people of similar tastes

A recently published study of college students argues that people become Facebook friends with people of similar tastes:

“The more tastes that you and I share in common, the more likely we are to become friends,” said study author Kevin Lewis, a graduate student in sociology at Harvard University.

The findings seem to contradict the conventional wisdom that people are easily influenced by those around them. Instead, “we’re seeking out people we already resemble rather than learning new perspectives and liking new things,” Lewis said…

The goal of the study was to understand how people choose friendships, Lewis said. The researchers started with 1,640 students at an unnamed U.S. college in 2006 and tracked their Facebook friendships and tastes — in popular music, movies and books — until they were seniors in 2009…

The study found that “students who share some tastes in movies and music are more likely to become friends,” Lewis said. Shared tastes in books were less influential.

Sounds like an interesting study. I haven’t read the full study but there are two other things I would want to know:

1. The study is restricted to college students. Might this influence the results? Of course, these college students will become the adults of the next few decades.

2. How does this fit with existing research that shows that people tend to be Facebook friends with people they already know? Things are a little different in college where students are more willing to friend people in these classes (actual academic courses and year in school). But, most Facebook users are not going online to find new friends with whom they don’t previously have a connection.

3. The last paragraph I cited above makes me think of branding. Younger people in particular define themselves by some of their tastes and it doesn’t shock me that this is done more through music and movies than books. So are books more private tastes or are very few people in college reading?

New data on how many close friends Americans really have

An influential 2006 study, Social Isolation in America, published in the American Sociological Review suggested this about friendships:

The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. The mean network size decreases by about a third (one confidant), from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

While this paper has been cited widely, a new sociological study suggests the situation may not be so bad:

Although this shrinking social network “makes us potentially more vulnerable,” said Matthew Brashears, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University, “we’re not as socially isolated as scholars had feared.” However, Brashears isn’t confident in any of the numbers gathered for social isolation in past studies and the current one, suggesting better methods of getting true numbers are needed…

About 48 percent of participants listed one name [of someone they had discussed “important matters” with in the last 6 months], 18 percent listed two, and roughly 29 percent listed more than two names for these close friends. On average, participants had 2.03 confidantes. And just over 4 percent of participants didn’t list any names.

When Brashears looked closer at that number of socially isolated individuals, he found that 64 percent indicated that this was because they had no topic to discuss, while only about 36 percent had no one to talk to. Turns out, female participants and those who were educated were the least likely to report no names on their confidante list.

“Rather than our networks getting smaller overall, what I think may be happening is we’re simply classifying a smaller proportion of our networks as suitable for important discussions,” Brashears told LiveScience. “This is reassuring in that it suggests that we’re not becoming less social.”

Several things are interesting here:

1. The new study was done by Matthew Brashears, one of the co-authors of the 2006 study.

2. The actual numeric findings don’t seem that different from the 2006 study: Americans have about on average about two close confidantes.

3. The change here is the interpretation: Americans suggest that don’t have as much of a need for close confidantes. What kind of effects could this have on society? Have Americans lost the skill or the will to be a close friend? Have we become more private individuals about the most important topics?

4. One of the more interesting bits: “Brashears isn’t confident in any of the numbers gathered for social isolation in past studies and the current one.” Just confident enough to have work published in ASR on the topic? Perhaps it is just worded strangely in this report – perhaps the data isn’t optima lbut this is the best we can do with the tools we currently have.

Facebook moving toward users being able to “treat their life as a 24/7 reality show”

Wired looks at some of Facebook’s recent changes and future plans and summarizes their intentions:

Combined with other Facebook recent announcements — “friend lists” that help you classify your contacts into groups, a Ticker that gives updates from your cohorts as they happen,  and changes in the newsfeed to make it more reflective of what your close friends are doing — Facebook is not so subtly doubling down on its ambitions to enable people to shed the pre-digital cloak of isolation and treat their life as a 24/7 reality show, broadcast to those in their social spheres.

Remember when Time named “you” as the person of the year for 2006, before Facebook had swept across the planet? Here is how the story described the effect of the Internet:

It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

This is a more hopeful vision than what Wired offers where individuals can produce and star in their own reality show.

The fulcrum on which Facebook’s future might hinge is whether it is able to help people forge new connections  or whether people continue to hunker down in their existing social groups. The desire that Facebook users would forge new connections is not surprising if you have read sources like The Facebook Effect that highlighted the company’s goals of opening up the world. While research studies still suggest that the majority of Facebook contact and relationships exist between people who already know each other prior to Facebook, perhaps this will change due to Facebook’s interface changes as well as the growing cultural acceptance of conducting our social lives through this online realm. Or perhaps we are destined to live in a world where our highest goal is to become individual celebrities.

Juror becomes Facebook friends with defendent during trial and is dismissed from the case

There are times to friend people on Facebook and times not to. One of the times to refrain should include when you are on a jury and you want to be Facebook friends with the defendant:

Jurors and defendants are not meant to be friends — even if it’s just Facebook friends.

Four charges of contempt of court probably drilled this point home for 22-year-old Jonathan Hudson of Arlington, Texas. While on jury duty, Hudson sent a Facebook friend request to the female defendant in the case.

He was dismissed from the proceedings following the friend request, as well as for posting case information on his profile. Afterwards, he contacted the defendant through a Facebook message to apologize…

His lawyer told the paper the mistake was “a reflection of the times.”

I’m sure someone could develop a defense for this: being Facebook friends isn’t the same kind of friendship that might compromise a decision in a court case. But that then gets into the interesting area of what exactly it means to be a friend on Facebook.

If this is a “reflection of the times,” it suggests people have difficulty knowing when using newer technologies, like Facebook or texting, is appropriate. The courtroom is probably one of the more conservative institutions where it takes some time to change behavior norms. Would Facebook ever be incorporated into courtroom and trial behavior? What if jurors had electronic devices that they could use to interact with each other as they are hearing cases?

New “friend prediction program” based on the places one visits

Three researchers have developed a “friend prediction program” that accounts for the locations someone visits:

Through an extension of the “long-standing sociological theory” people who tend to frequent the same places may be similarly-minded individuals, Salvatore Scellato, Anastasios Noulas, and Cecilia Mascolo, have developed a friend prediction program based on the places people visit.

Sites such as Facbook and LinkedIn often suggest friends based on a ‘friend of a friend’ approach but now it could be based on where users ‘check in’.

The system would also use different weightings for places like gyms – where people frequent – as opposed to airports, where people visit only occasionally…

They discovered about 30 per cent of social links developed because of people visiting the same places.

It sounds like location is not everything when it comes to forming friendships but it does play an important role.

I don’t know if many people think about why they are friends with the people they are friends with but I suspect one argument might emerge: we choose to be friends with our friends. Such a story would fit with tales we tell about finding romantic partners. It gives agency to each participant and suggests each person found the other to be likeable. But perhaps another story might emerge as well: we just sort of started hanging out together. This story would be tied to proximity: people who are placed or place themselves in particular places or situations are more likely to become friends. Some classic examples include being in a series of high school classes together, being assigned to certain roommates early on in college, starting work at a particular company. In each of these situations, people still have some room to choose their friends but their pool of possible friends is more limited by structural forces. Theoretically, you could be friends with anyone but realistically, you will come in contact with a more limited number of people in life.

Perhaps some still think that the Internet can reduce the impact of proximity by connecting people who never or rarely are in the same location. However, research suggests that most SNS (Facebook, Myspace, etc.) relationships are based on existing off-line relationships. The power of proximity will last for some time, even if most people don’t think about it.