In 1974, a sociologist tested the social norms of reciprocity by sending out Christmas cards to 600 strangers. He received a sizable response:
And so he went out and collected directories for some nearby towns and picked out around 600 names. “I started out at a random number and then skipped so many and got to the next one,” he says.
To these 600 strangers, Kunz sent his Christmas greetings: handwritten notes or a card with a photo of him and his family. And then Kunz waited to see what would happen.
“It was just, you know, a shot in the dark,” he says. “I didn’t know what would happen.”
But about five days later, responses started filtering back — slowly at first and then more, until eventually they were coming 12, 15 at a time. Eventually Kunz got more than 200 replies. “I was really surprised by how many responses there were,” he says. “And I was surprised by the number of letters that were written, some of them three, four pages long.”…
“We got cards for maybe 15 years,” he says.
While the article goes on to discuss why strangers might reciprocate in this way, I wonder how much this applies to the social realm of Facebook. If someone did something similar on Facebook today, such as making friend requests of many people they don’t know or sending messages to strangers, would people respond in the same way? From personal experience, research on the topic, and an experiment one of my students did this semester by sending messages to random Facebook users and receiving no response, reciprocation does not occur to the same degree in Facebook. Here are a few reasons why this might be the case:
1. A growing distrust of strangers. On Facebook, this sort of behavior tends to be described as “creepy.” Even as media sources suggest users, particularly kids and teenagers, can meet all sorts of random people online, most users tend to stick with people they already know or who are in geographic proximity (like classmates at the same school).
2. People are less in the habit of having to reciprocate because more encounters on Facebook are controlled, meaning they happen when a user wants them to happen. In other words, chance encounters between people who don’t know each other are more limited. Overall, Facebook and text messaging and other means make it more possible to have social interactions on someone’s own terms.
To some degree, reciprocity is part of how trust is built between social actors. It is part of basic exchanges: if you ask someone “how are you doing?” you expect a polite response. If you provide a favor for someone at work, we tend to expect a favor in return down the road. However, these sorts of exchanges may look very different on Facebook (for example, common encouraging responses to new profile pictures or posts about tough circumstances) and could signal larger shifts in how people interact.