Social Networking: Friend or foe?
This month saw the first Psychology in the Pub event take place in Sheffield. This spin-off from the popular London event is organised by myself and Mary Langridge. It will be happening once a month from now on at the Showroom in central Sheffield.
For the first event we were very lucky to have Sue Jamison-Powell from the University of Lincoln talking to us about her work on social networking. Sue has particularly studied the experience of 'defriending', or being 'defriended' on social networking sites such as facebook. She points out that, in real life friendships, there is the possibility of allowing friendships to drift into acquaintance-ships. On many social networking sites, however, it is only possible to have people as a 'friend' or not. This makes online friendships something more like romantic relationships, which we tend to view in an either/or way: Either we are in a relationship or we are not. For this reason Sue suggests that the experience of being 'defriended', or 'defriending' someone, may have more in common with losing a lover.
Defriending is certainly a very common experience. Sue found that only 16% of the people she studied had not experienced being on one end or the other of a defriending. When she studied those who had been defriended by somebody else, she found that the vast majority of them had not done anything about the situation when they found out about it. Research on romantic relationships suggests that an important part of the break-up process is some kind of communication between people acknowledging that there is a need for change. Clearly this doesn't happen in online defriending. Rather people are generally surprised to find themselves defriended, and don't feel that initiating a conversation about it is something that they want to, or are able to, do. Levels of distress following a defriending clearly weren't usually as high as after most romantic relationship break-ups. However, they were not non-existent either.
When she looked at the reasons people gave for defriending others, Sue found that it was sometimes done due to different expectations of the friendship (e.g. one person thinking it was pointless because they weren't close in 'real-life'). Other times people found it difficult to bring together different groups of friends on a social networking site and defriended those whose comments were likely to be disapproved of by other friends or family ('I didn't want me mam reading about my debauchery'). Some people valued their privacy and didn't want their posts read by certain friends (for example, work colleagues). Others found themselves irritated by some friends' online styles (spamming them with quizzes, for example).
Sue's talk sparked a lively discussion amongst the Psychology in the Pub attendees about the potentials and pitfalls of social networking sites. It became clear that people used them in very different ways, and that they meant different things to different people as well. For example, some were friends mostly with people who they knew well and used the sites to arrange meeting up. Others used social networking more to keep up with people at a distance, and/or to connect with new people. Some had more than one social networking persona for different aspects of their lives (e.g. work, social, family, sex) whilst others brought these together in one place.
Like Sue, it is important that people studying sites like twitter and facebook maintain an awareness of the multiplicity of experiences that people can have of them. Rather than trying to determine whether social networking is a good thing or a bad thing, perhaps it is more useful to explore the potentials that they can open up and the possibilities that they can close down. For example, the limiting either/or approach to (de)friending has changed now that it is possible on facebook just to hide friend requests. However, this may still discourage any kind of open communication between people and leave them feeling rejected with no idea why.
Social networking can be both a wonderful way for shy people to try out relationships in a safe context and for those who are geographically isolated to connect with like-minded people. It can also encourage fairly superficial connections and a sense of alienation when a post is not commented upon, for example. Seeing the varied experiences of our facebook friends can remind us that everyone suffers and give us opportunities to offer, and to receive, compassion. Alternatively, we might be confronted with purely shiny happy postings which leave us worrying there is something wrong with us, or with an overwhelming sense of hardship and impotence when many of our friends are struggling. When we socially network we can feel pressured to present one, coherent side of ourselves which will gain the most approval ('like'), or we can creatively enjoy the precarious experience of revealing the complexity and multiplicity of our daily existence.
In conclusion, as facebook would have it: it's complicated.
Find out more:
You can read Sue Jamison-Powell's presentation here
Find out more about Psychology in the Pub here
I will continue to blog here about the Psychology in the Pub events. Watch this space...