But neither does it take away from the average number of close friends you have.
It’s a shame that some UK news outlets are spinning the findings of a small survey conducted by some UK researchers and presented at the British Festival of Science this week. The survey of more than 200 people was conducted to help gauge some aspects of friendships on social networking websites such as Facebook and Myspace.
For instance, the UK’s Guardian claims “You can’t make real friends online.” And yet, when reading the article, you find that’s not really what the researchers are saying at all.
Instead, their research found what most of us suspected was true all along — social networks use the term “friend” so loosely that it bears little resemblance to what the word actually means.
The study found that online people tended to have about the same number of “close friends” as they do in real-life and previous studies have found — five. And that while people had contact with many hundreds of people through these networks, they remain what we all recognize they are — mostly fleeting acquaintances or even strangers.
Now, does any of this mean you “can’t make real friends online?” Of course not. That’s just a stupid, factually-incorrect headline a lazy Guardian editor attached to the story (and we expect better from this publication).
In fact, the study found exactly the opposite of this headline — that people online have about the same number of close friends as the real-life average person, 90% of whom they’ve actually met face to face.
For a more accurate review of the research, check out the BA’s press release on the study’s presentation: Is social networking changing the face of friendship?
The answer is no, it’s really not. At least not so far.
I spoke with a reporter yesterday for a piece that probably won’t be published until January about this very same phenomenon. One point she summarized very well is this — A whole new generation is growing up placing new value on the number of these “friends” in online social networks. What effects will this dependency on these false numbers have for this generation?
What meaning do they have?
I suggested the meaning is the same as any time we compare ourselves to others via some metric — that it help improves our own self-esteem and self-confidence. But those who would put too much into these numbers — as though they actually equated to real friends or such — are those who will be most sorely disappointed when they see that companies, families, and, well, most of the civilized world doesn’t much care about how big your social network is.