Is the internet making our social lives more dynamic?

18 May


Along with two former colleagues of mine, Lynne Hamill and Nigel Gilbert (both of the University of Surrey), I have been working on some research into friendship and the internet. The interest  has been in sociology of friendship and the deployment of new computational tools  for investigating that topic. This research is suggesting some surprising things, so much so that I thought I might share some of that here: what is presented below is a shortened version of a paper we hope to have accepted in the British Journal of Sociology.

A sociology of Friendship

Though one might imagine friendship is a concern for psychology perhaps more than sociology, friendship has in fact always been a central theme. Webs of connection made around friendship were said by Simmel (1922/1955), for example, to be both the consequence of institutional and professional bonds and the source of those bonds. In his view, work affiliation could lead to intimacy, and intimacy could be the motivation to join professional and organisational groupings.  Given this, the term friendship is at once a label that distinguishes those who are friends from those who are not and a label for a connection that leads to action. More recently, reknown British sociologists Pahl and Pevalin (2005) use longitudinal data to affirm that this is a better way of thinking about friendship; they explain that friendship is both a categorization of a relation in time and something that evolves through time. While Simmel was interested in the move from friendship to institutional relationship, and in how webs of sociality lead to webs of economy (and thus ultimately with the formal properties of social relations), Pahl and Pevalin focus on emotional connections, not economic ones. Moreover they are interested in both the making and the breaking of relationships: how individuals start as acquaintances, and then gradually, with the passing of time, become friends; and how friendships can weaken with the passing of time and the shock of life events.

Friendships can also be viewed in another way: the relations can be thought of as a social network that is “fluid, shifting” (Boissevain, 1974: 48). Confirming this, Grossetti (2005) demonstrated that there is “a constant turnover” in personal relationships, developing from family at birth through to friends at school, and then changing as co-workers and neighbours come and go in adulthood. In this respect, social networks are affected by social mobility, not in the sense of movement in economic class, but insofar as people experience changes in their social context and geographic location. Key life stage events, such as marriage, cause perturbations affecting both the size and structure of the network (see for example Kalmijn, 2003; Wellman et al., 1997). However, kin relationships are more likely to persist over time than relationships with non-kin, even if contact is infrequent.

People have few friends compared to the number of people around them; that is, social networks are of low density, despite the fact that most modern life is spent in urban settings where people are in constant close proximity.  Many studies show that physical proximity increases the likelihood of social closeness, especially with non-kin (Heider, 1958: 188-189; Fischer, 1982; Cummings et al, 2006; Mok et al., 2007).  In 2000 just over half of British adults had close relatives living nearby and three quarters had nearby close friends.  Many of these were seen daily, suggesting that geographical nearness was a property of the relations in question, for otherwise this frequency of contact would not have been possible (Coulthard et al., 2002: 54). Being together is what friends do, it would appear, even if the social geography in which these friendships occur is one that is populated by many strangers, that is, in Simmel’s anonymous modernity.

Communications technology and human connection

The way these physically close connections with friends and kin are maintained is less well understood. What is sure is that the frequency of face-to-face meetings falls dramatically with increasing distance (Smoreda and Thomas, 2001; Quan-Haase and Wellman, 2002: 305; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Larsen et al., 2006: 112; Frei and Axhausen, 2009). Nevertheless, it would seem obvious that technologies that enable some amelioration of the effect of distance will affect social networks – even if how they actually do that is manifold, and even sometimes opaque.

New transport and communications technologies have enabled people to interact over increasing distance. But, those interactions are diverse and subtle. Roads not only allow more frequent visits but also allow speedier sending of the gifts of friendship; postal systems deliver content but also help create a cultural sensibility to make social bonds through the written word (Henkin, 2007). Telephones do not just allow voice to be conveyed over distance, but foster the desire to chit-chat and thus make friendship in new ways (Fisher, 1992). Research on the impact of communication technologies shows that they can increase the strength of friendship connections in rather particular ways (Schiano et al., 2002; Boase, 2008).  The frequency of phone calls, fixed or mobile, becomes less frequent as distance increases, though they are of longer duration; but phones are important in maintaining friendships, especially strong ones, regardless of the frequency or ease with which face-to-face meetings can occur (Wellman, 1996; Wellman et al., 1997; Cummings et al., 2002; Quan-Haase and Wellman, 2002: 305; Coulthard et al., 2002; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Larsen et al., 2006: 112).  And Carrasco et al. (2008) noted the importance of email in maintaining contact in a way not facilitated by phones.

The internet is the most recent technology to affect the process of friendship. Early studies, in the 1990s, used rather simple measures that suggested that the more time people spent on the internet, the fewer friendships they had, because spending time on the internet was treated as an alternative to investing time in friendships. This led to the formulation of the so-called ‘internet paradox’, the inverse relationship between time spent on the internet and friendship (Kraut et al., 1998). However, social networking technologies were then less advanced and less widely used than they are today, and internet behaviour often entailed playing very crude online games where little communication with other players was possible. It is hardly surprising therefore that the internet paradox was refuted by the same researchers a few years later (Kraut et al., 2002) when new social networking applications began to appear. By this time motives for using the web had altered too. The later research suggested that internet interaction helped foster friendships across the board.

Another set of researchers drew a distinction between types of experience people have with one another and the friendships that resulted. Friendships deepen and sustain themselves when ‘quality time’ is invested in them, these researchers asserted (Nie et al., 2000). In this view, good friendships exist when people spend time together. Other forms of connection, in which the parties are physically apart, were less rich and hence less consequential. Accordingly, use of internet-enabled techniques to communicate across distance could undermine friendship if that were the primary mode of contact, especially if it led people to spend less ‘quality time’ with each other. This research showed some concern with the patterns of friendship and friendship networks through time, although this was implied rather than researched. A greater concern was revisiting the internet paradox argument.

However, a growing body of literature has emerged that suggests that the impact of the internet on friendship is related to social type: people who are more sociable online are more sociable offline too (Di Gennaro and Dutton, 2007; Wang and Wellman, 2010). Those who do not make use of connections online are also more likely to have few friends offline (Dutton et al., 2009: 5). This research suggests some of the reasons why friendship networks vary in size and in density, with some people having consistently more friends on the internet through time than others: it is because they would have more friends whatever the technological infrastructure at hand. This infrastructure eases the work of ‘keeping in touch’, allowing those who have a propensity to leverage such opportunities to do so, while leaving those with less inclination to do otherwise. Claims about the internet paradox have come to be seen as somewhat orthogonal to these (and indeed other) sorts of questions.

Investigating the impact of the internet

One such question is the topic of this paper: how has the duration of friendship ties been affected by the coming of the internet? Answering this question poses some difficulty, however. Despite the increasing sophistication of these debates it is becoming apparent that the standard sociological data typically evoked to explain social action –gender, age, income, education – when combined with such things as internet access times and site usage, are not sufficient to analyse the ways that friendship is being shaped by this technology. Nor are these data rich enough to explore how the technology in turn is being shaped by friendship (Di Gennero and Dutton, 2007). Other factors need to be uncovered.

Solutions to these concerns may be at hand, however. New kinds of data are being made available by the internet beyond the enervating counts of access volumes and duration that have been hitherto relied upon. As Savage & Burrows (2007) note,  social network data can provide opportunities not just for researching the scale of friendship but for a whole host of sociological topics including ‘points of view’ within capitalist society (2007: 891).  While agreeing, we would add that the kinds of evidence that are being garnered through analysis of social connections made through services like Facebook does not suggest that the essential material of sociological inquiry is altering as much as might have been hoped. For example, Ellison et al. (2007) note that there is a strong link between the extant social capital that people bring to bear when they engage with others through social networking sites (SNS) and the duration of that social capital. SNS increase the lifecycle of human connection.  On the other hand, Henson et al.’s research (2010) is uncovering new forms of sociality and social identity, and they bring to bear huge aggregates of data to support their analysis. These data say little about the experience or process of friendship however, being more allied to the question of civic role in the age of networked technical support.

Discerning new characteristics in internet-mediated human friendship is not easy. As yet, no clear and comprehensive patterning governing how friendships are made, sustained, or come to wither on SNS  and other forms of mediated connection has been found (for a review see Author B, especially chapter 4). The relation between modes of contact and the processual character of friendship has also not been completely researched. It is easy to point out that more new connections are made via SNS than via other more traditional modes (Di Gennero and Dutton, 2007), but what happens thereafter is less well understood.  Although some years ago Urry (2003) implied that there might be a natural prosody to how often people would need to meet face-to-face in order to sustain close connection, more recent research shows that no such clear cut distinctions can be made (as I show, in my book Texture, 2010). Different modalities of communication afford different opportunities and constraints and people appropriate these in various ways, sometimes resisting and altering those affordances to use the technology in new ways (Papacharissi, 2011: 304-318). As Sosik et al. (2011) illustrate: although Facebook only affords asynchronous and primarily textual modalities of expression, these limitations do not weaken friendships. Users put effort into making their acts of communication within Facebook more adroit and powerful because of these limits. There is still much to learn about how different sorts of communication media affect the process of friendship.

This brings us back to Savage and Burrows. They propose that sociology should invite new methodologies and tools. Lynne, Nigel and I all agree that concerns deriving from apparently  premature judgements about internet-mediated changes on social connection, common agreement about the limitation of current data taxonomies, and deficiencies in understanding the relation between the internet and other technologies, lead us to suggest that one new method is especially worthy of investigation . Though it does not transform the source of sociological data (something that drew the attention of Savage and Burrows) this method uses computational techniques to treat data in novel ways. This technique is computational agent-based modelling.

Agent-based Modelling

This kind of modelling is not an alternative to the traditional sociological methods of observation, interview and survey, nor of those new sources of data that Savage and Burrows propose. Indeed, without such data collection, modelling of any kind would be impossible. Agent-based modelling is rather a way of consolidating the data that are available, and can bring together the qualitative and the quantitative in ways that were not possible before.

A major limitation of the ‘traditional’ qualitative and quantitative sociological studies is that they generate data that represent essentially static moments in social processes: they show a snapshot at one point in time. Longitudinal studies lasting over several years are rare, but again offer links between what are essentially static points. Agent-based modelling, meanwhile, not only captures the outcomes of process, but presents those processes as inspectable phenomena, insofar as investigators can alter the variables so as to test the adequacy of the model against various known or certain data samples.

Relatedly, the act of building an agent model itself can help investigators think about a problem and clarify their own hypothesis or motivating questions. Adjusting the model can expose implicit assumptions that might not otherwise have been appreciated, can identify variables that had not been considered, and can even raise questions of definition about the form or dynamics of relationships. All of this can help investigators better assess the relative importance of various factors suggested by more traditional forms of data gathering and theory.

Furthermore, modelling can be used to test theories about dynamic social processes by facilitating experimentation that for practical or ethical reasons is impossible to conduct in any other way. Modelling permits researchers to address ‘what if’ questions that simply cannot be addressed by any other means.

To sum up, following Epstein (2008), there are four key reasons to model:

•to test theories of explanation;

•to explore dynamics;

•to formulate questions (and thereby guide data collection);

•to examine possible outcomes.

There are of course many different types of modelling. However, the newly emerging computational agent-based modelling has two characteristics that seem especially useful in relation to the impact of the internet on the duration of friendships. First, it is good at tracing out the dynamics of social relations such as the processual concerns in relation to friendship, for example.

Second, agent-based modelling facilitates experimentation, allowing tests of the importance of different factors. As mentioned above, recent research about the internet has shown that an increasing number of diverse factors are important. Understanding of the relations of these data is often inadequate. Agent-based modelling can help test which factors would seem to be most likely to explain the emerging evidence about internet use and its relation to friendship, and it can do so with the limited data that is available. As a case in point, Casilli and Tubaro (2010) combine ethnographic data about friendship enabled through Facebook with agent-based modelling to explore how different types of individual action can affect the overall macro structure of a social netwo Friendship is one of the most profoundly subjective of experiences. But friendship also has what Simmel called ‘formal properties’: patterned dimensions manifest at an objective level. This paper has investigated one of these properties: namely the duration of friendship. In particular, it has addressed the question: how has the duration of friendship ties been affected by the coming of the internet? Because of the problems of using traditional sociological techniques to answer this question, this paper has used agent-based modelling. This modelling provides a quantitative assessment based on a set of plausible, consistent assumptions that can be varied thus permitting experimentation. It provides both a framework for answering some questions and a method to investigate concerns that cannot be addressed by more conventional means.

What do we find?

On the basis of the assumptions we made, this model suggests that the internet is unlikely to increase the number of core friends, but it may make these relationships more stable. The model indicates that:

Between 1998 and 2009, the average number of core friends had increased from 5.4 to 5.6. Although these averages suggest little overall change, some individuals have been affected significantly. By 2009, almost 1 in 5 had at least one friend in their core network who would not have been had there been no internet effect: 1 in 25 had more than one such friend.

Onliners were more likely to maintain at least one core member over the 11 years. Without the internet, 40 per cent would have had a persistence rate of zero i.e. none of the members of their original core network would have still been there at the end of the period; while with the internet, this fell to 36 per cent. Although the internet has had little effect on the average persistence rate of core ties so far, in the longer term it could affect it significantly, even raising it to as much as two thirds.

In sum, the modelling suggests that the number of friends that people might call close, or intimate, will likely remain fairly similar with the internet. This may seem surprising, given the hyperbole that often goes with discussion of the internet suggestive that social ties are weakening, that historical stability is being replaced by social fluidity (See for example Bauman 2005). What the internet appears to do is slow the pace of change, so friendships last longer. The oft-heard idea that the internet is creating change would seem to be egregious if by that is meant change in sociality. Our modelling suggests the reverse: the internet creates more stability through time. If this is so, such stability may help to assuage the loneliness of modernity that Simmel describes. One may also reflect on Giddens’ explorations of the reflexivity of identity, and his view that people have to negotiate who they are through the myriad relations they form with others (1991). Our model suggests that this might not be such a burden as Giddens implies.

Relatedly, the modelling suggests that the importance of geography is reducing with the internet, but again, not greatly. Certainly one might say that friendships sustain themselves longer when geographical distance is increased. This is evidenced by Dutton and Blank’s (2011: 38) finding that the internet has increased contact with friends and family who live further away. But being near still counts. Again, how does this relate to the claims about the move away from the door-to-door society? Cairncross’s book (2001), The Death of Distance is evidently offering an erroneous but commonplace view.

And this in turn suggests that the internet is not simply a means of making, keeping and moving on from contacts. It, rather, affords particular forms of sociality. This sheds a different light on the arguments about the internet paradox. These suggested that there is a difference between the kind of relation enabled by face-to-face and by internet-mediated connections. It was proposed that there is a contrast between the ‘quality time’ delivered by bodies being co-proximate as against the weak and anodyne bonds made through the keyboard. What our modelling suggests, in contrast, is that the links made possible through the internet are as vital as any other, but that they may be of another kind. And what we are thinking of here is not a distinction between, say, the virtual and the real. We need to distinguish those who can foster human connection, whether it is mediated or not, and those who do not or cannot foster such mediated connection. It is Bourdieau’s habitus that is evoked, not arguments about space, time or volume of connection (see Mistzal, 1996: especially 102-156). This term is now somewhat old, but perhaps it could be brought up to date with the protocols of the internet social network site as its mis en scène. It is De Certeau’s ‘practice of everyday life’ (1984) when that entails routine use of Facebook. What is required is a move from observing behaviours in Paris to observing them on the world wide web of activity, the habitus enabled by Palo Alto.


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