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How 'Social' Is Social Networking?

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I like Facebook. I've been signing into the site fairly regularly for a couple years now, and it has become my large extended family's primary form of communication. It also keeps me connected with friends and former colleagues -- people I like a lot but would never stay in touch with otherwise. We share photos, update personal news, comment on politics and pop culture -- nothing serious, but it's still more connection than I would have in a previous era.

In that sense, Facebook is certainly a social lubricant for many of its 500 million users, facilitating fast and effortless and widespread connection. But does this innovative technology actually change the quality and texture of relationships? Do people have better connections with others, more open and honest and satisfying? In short, can social media enhance social life?

Psychological scientists are very interested in this question. And they are especially intrigued by this new technology's potential to help those who don't connect easily with others -- the shy, the lonely and those suffering from low self-esteem. Do people who have difficulty with social connection use Facebook in ways that enrich their lives? Two University of Waterloo scientists, Amanda Forest and Joanne Wood, have recently begun exploring these questions. Specifically, they wanted to see if people suffering low self-esteem, who tend to be guarded about their true feelings, see Facebook as a safe place for opening up to others. They also wanted to see if such socially awkward people actually capitalize on the opportunity Facebook offers -- that is, if they have more rewarding interactions on Facebook than they do normally, face-to-face.

They ran a few studies, all of which began by sorting volunteers using a standard self-esteem measure. In the first study, they simply asked volunteers with both high and low self-esteem about their perceptions of Facebook: Does Facebook allow you to express yourself? To connect with others? Compared to normal social interactions, does Facebook make you less self-conscious? Does it allow you to get more attention from others? And so forth.

The results were clear. Compared to those with high self-esteem, those with low self-esteem were much more likely to perceive Facebook as safer than their usual social interactions. They saw advantages to opening up on Facebook, like getting social support and attention without being a burden. In short, they saw Facebook as an important opportunity to connect.

At least in theory. Socially anxious people may view Facebook as a safe haven for social connection, but do they actually use the site to improve their lives? Forest and Wood had their doubts, and in a second study, they actually examined the volunteers' recent "status updates" -- snippets of news, reflections, comments -- and rated them for positive or negative emotional content. How often did they express sadness, frustration, boredom, embarrassment -- and how often gratitude or excitement? They also had independent judges form overall reactions to the volunteers, based on their status updates: How much do you like this person? Would you like to spend time with him or her?

The findings suggest that people with low self-esteem are not taking advantage of the opportunities that (they say) Facebook offers them. They don't use Facebook any more than people with high self-esteem, and when they do post comments, they are much more likely to be negative rather than positive in tone. As a direct result of this negativity, judges were less likely to see these Facebook users as likable.

Think of these judges as that third or fourth circle of Facebook "friends" -- that is, not really friends at all but casual acquaintances of acquaintances and colleagues of colleagues. Strangers really -- the ones you never really interact with at all. So how do "real" Facebook friends react on-line to people with low self-esteem? Real friends genuinely care about the well-being of those they're close to, but they also know them -- they're accustomed to their moods and manners. The scientists suspected that friends would judge friends in the context of their personal history and familiarity, and tested this idea in a final experiment.

Again, they collected volunteers' recent Facebook posts and rated them for positivity, negativity and likeability. But this time they also collected and rated friends' reactions to these posts--their "likes" and comments. They wanted to see if this style of opening up -- expressing negative thoughts and feelings -- elicited nurturing and supportive reactions from friends. Or did friends find them tiresome? In other words, is such Facebook disclosure a rewarding experience on balance?

In a word, no. As described in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, people with high self-esteem did garner attention and support from real friends when they had something negative to say -- probably because being negative was the exception rather than the rule. But people with low self-esteem got neither attention nor validation of their negative feelings. Indeed, their real friends were much more supportive when they posted positive comments, perhaps because they were trying to encourage this atypical mood and action.

So, nobody likes a whiner. That's beginning to sound like real life. But one difference with Facebook -- an advantage for the socially clumsy -- is that rejection and avoidance are more subtle. There's no "unlike" button and, generally speaking, it takes a lot of negativity for real friends to "unfriend" you. So in that sense, Facebook probably is a safer place.

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