Thursday, March 19, 2009

Issues of Relationships Through Facebook as a Mode of Communication

The social networking site Facebook has changed the way that people interact with each other in many different ways. From its inception, Facebook has been a vehicle of communication and a way to be more connected to people despite geographical location or other barriers that might hinder such communication in the “real” or physical world. Facebook has become, however, more than its title as a “social networking site” implies. The relationships built on Facebook are not limited to schoolmates, as they once were, or college students. These relationships are not limited to the young, physically able, students, or any other category that might otherwise define a social space. Facebook and other similar sites have revolutionized the way people build and keep relationships as well as how they communicate. Facebook has, for the most part, improved communications and relationships and, despite some of the drawbacks, served as a generally positive tool for those looking to establish or maintain good relationships.

As with any new technology, however, there are some questions to be asked and answered about how this new form of communication affects people. Has it blurred the line between student and educators? Has it brought negative consequences for families – parents and children – for whom the constant flow of information may be too much? Or, perhaps, friends become too dependent on Facebook and less involved in the actual friendship – after all, why call or see your friends when all you have to do to see how they’re doing is check their Facebook status?

Then there are more serious, sinister issues to contend with. Is that humiliating picture your friend posted of you going to be seen by your teacher, your significant other, your mom?! Are people putting too much information in their profiles – address, phone number, present location – which could make them vulnerable to all kinds of trouble? These are issues that will be discussed; hopefully this research can shed some light on how, for better or worse, Facebook has changed the way we communicate.

Methods:

Keeping in mind the time constraints and the enormity of the Facebook phenomena, we began our research by separating the topic of relationships on Facebook into five individual sub-sections, so each of us could focus on one area. We decided to explore the methods of communication on Facebook to foster the various types of relationships, the issue of privacy when it came to those relationships, the interaction between ‘friends’ on Facebook, the communication between family members on Facebook, and finally the role of professional relationships between students and educators on Facebook. To facilitate the process of gathering more specific data in our respective sub-topics, we put together a general survey that asked the basic questions of age and general Facebook usage. As it was a survey about Facebook users, we distributed the survey through our own Facebook accounts, using the snowball sampling method: friends that took the survey were encouraged to tag their friends to take the survey, and those friends would tag their friends, and so on. Using this method, we were able to receive responses from over a hundred people in a relatively short period of time.


SurveyMonkey.com: our general survey

The results of the general survey ended up being extremely important, we used the data found as a springboard into deeper research for our individual sub-topics. For the individual research, we used a variety of methods to gather data, including topic-specific surveys unrelated to the general survey. We also sent out detailed questionnaires and relied heavily on interviews, conducting them in several different ways. Some interviews used instant messaging and/or chats, while in-person interviews ranged from casual to structured styles. Finally, we put together all the data to formulate a conclusion, and our findings are explored in detail below.

Findings:

Communication

The emergence of Facebook and other social networking sites greatly changed how we communicate with those we share a relationship with. Facebook brings impersonal and personal relationships together on a single online platform. Specifically, Facebook enables us to reach people more easily and quickly. One student explains she “talked every day during class in high school, but after moving away to college in different areas it’s harder to keep up with friends.” Contacting people whose information such as phone number is unknown is yet another use for Facebook.

Users see Facebook as a convenient yet non-confrontational way to keep in touch, especially with people they haven’t contacted recently. However, the ability to check on others sometimes changes how people feel towards those they know. One person discovered a friend had become a go-go dancer from photos posted of her dancing nearly naked via Facebook. Another confessed examining friends’ profiles and activity on Facebook sometimes changed his perception of them; he would peruse things such as posts and interests. He argued, “I respected some less after… when they used vulgar or crude language.” Other times, he saw friends as “more sophisticated, bolder, more passionate… has led… to respect them more.”

Many surveyed individuals primarily use Facebook for unimportant, non-urgent communication or mass messaging. When asked if they preferred using Facebook rather than emailing, calling, texting, or meeting in person to keep in touch, 55% said ‘no’ while 26% said ‘sometimes.’ The findings show preferences depended on the situation. One person reasoned, on Facebook she “talk[ed] less closely to friends…. Whatever is placed on their wall might be seen by anyone, might show up in Newsfeed… to really talk… prefer to talk in person or on the phone.” She argued, “things like Facebook, email and instant messaging seem impersonal and it’s almost impossible to read a person’s ‘tone’ in text format.” With text, meanings may become lost in translation by the receiver. Another user stated he used Facebook to communicate with others when “not urgent… doesn’t need immediate response.” Although Facebook makes communication convenient, people still prefer more private means of communication for personal exchanges.

Facebook users utilize status updates to broadcast themselves to their audience. While some users don’t update their status, others update few times a week to multiple times a day. Ron* sums it up, describing status updates as “news headlines for people in your life.”

News headlines for one's life?

This activity is strikingly similar to what Adam Reed discusses in 'My Blog is Me.’ Online communication since Reed’s article shifted from weblogs to status updates, but same concepts still apply. For instance, Reed discusses how weblog entries were irregular, “posted as often as five times a day… other times twice a week.” These entries consisted of things like musings, confessions, links-based commentary (Reed 2005: 226).

Of those surveyed, many believe status updates enable them to casually keep up with those they don’t see often. Reed had the same idea of weblogs “capturing a person’s impressions almost as they occur” (Reed 2005: 227). One person argued status updates made her “feel like I know the person better, because I know some details about their lives.” She added that status updates “provide topics for conversation,” making mere acquaintances more relatable. One college student said status updates “make it a lot easier to say [things]… don’t have to repeat myself… allows me to share good news with a lot of people at once.” One high school student found status updates useful for homework. It served a convenient way to ask for help, and friends’ updates reminded her of due dates.

Status updates of what's currently going on in daily life

Others use status updates as therapy, expressing what’s on their minds. When Tom’s* ex-girlfriend updated with “AWEHLAGJAKL,” he confessed, “I’ve never seen that before… when I asked it was an explosion of angst/worry/depression… bad emotion bottled up and exploded in my face.” Like weblogs, status updates “provide a day-to-day account of passing moods and experiences… as it happens” (Reed 2005: 226).

Facebook as a new form of therapy?

Other users update out of boredom or purely to receive feedback. Others post statuses to share “inside jokes” among friends. Tom* admits he updated “to gain attention … I sometimes ask a question for the general Facebook community… ask questions to see what kind of reaction I can get.” He once posted an update “Tom is hoping for the sky to fall,” receiving an outpour of puzzled responses.


Random status messages by a Facebook user

Ron compares status updates to Twitter, which dedicates itself to short updates. Asked why he didn’t use Twitter, Ron replied, “cuz then no one would check it.” Ron wanted people to see his updates and respond. He added, “If no one saw it, would there be any point? I might as well write a diary.” Consequently Reed called weblogs “brain dumps,” a way to channel what’s on an individual’s mind while documenting the “stresses and strains” of life (Reed 2005: 228).

Friendships

According to the general survey, 93% of people said they used Facebook to contact and communicate with friends. Due to its popularity and pervasiveness, Facebook has enabled new ways for communication and changed the way friends are perceived.

The number of friends on Facebook demonstrates how the site has stretched the sphere of social relations. From the conducted survey, 48% of people mentioned they had more than 241 Facebook friends. Is it normal or even possible to have such a large number of friends in real life? According to Stephanie Tong, in actual life the average number of people managed in a sphere of social relations is about 150 people (Tong et al: 2008). Therefore, the 48% of people having 241 or more friends on Facebook have gone over this average by almost 100 people. This indicates how Facebook has widened social relationships and enabled people to maintain friendships with more people than those without Facebook.

In her article Tong mentioned, “At the same time, that which is labeled "friend" on Facebook often does not correspond to the same label offline.” Asked when they normally added a person as a friend on Facebook, most people answered it was after they had met the person once or after several times. Offline, meeting with someone once or several times does not always mean becoming friends, but this is seemingly the definition of a friend according to Facebook users. In short, the data obtained from the surveys illustrates how Facebook has changed the perception of “friends,” mostly by transforming it into a shallow idea.

Comments received in the survey demonstrate that Facebook brought a change in people’s perceptions of each other. When asked how their relationships with friends have changed one individual answered, “acquaintances learn more about you without actually talking to you.” Thus, people who connect via Facebook share much more information about themselves than those who don’t use the site. This applies both to “friends” and “acquaintances,” people who barely know each other in actual life come to understand each other better. But do people notice that their relationships with friends have changed? According to the survey, 86.7% of people do think their relationships with friends have changed due to Facebook. Many believe Facebook affected their relationships with friends in a positive way. 76.9% of people agreed Facebook enabled them to contact friends more frequently. The same percentage of people also noted that Facebook helped increase their number of friends. Astonishingly, none of those surveyed thought the use of Facebook brought negative effects such as decrease in number of or interaction with friends.

While the survey showed people’s way of friendship have changed, it seems that people’s perception of the number of close friends have not. Tong mentions that “research on traditional social networks suggests that the number of people with whom an individual maintains close relationships is about 10-20” (Tong et al: 2008) and results from the survey showed similar findings. Thirty percent of those surveyed thought 10 or fewer were close friends on Facebook and 57% recognized 20 people or less. Thus Facebook doesn’t seem to have an affect on close friends, since in both the actual world and Facebook most people retain almost the same number.

Family Relationships

Google the simple words “Facebook,” “family,” “adults” together and most of the hits coming up are articles addressing the wails of despair from the younger generation as their parents and grandparents sign up for Facebook accounts in increasing numbers. It comes as no surprise when we recall the fact Facebook initially began as a social networking tool for university students, then later high school students, before finally opening to people of all ages. Taking into consideration interactions between friends that occur on Facebook, it’s no surprise that family on Facebook seems to be a thing to bemoan. What sane person would want their parents and grandparents seeing the things they post on Facebook, whether it’s pictures from a wild party from the night before or a simple agony-filled statement conveying abject misery about the morning hangover?


one of our general survey question's results

If that’s the case, what explains our survey results? When asked the types of people they had contact with via Facebook, 56% of respondents asserted they used Facebook to keep in touch with family. Such a high number is astonishing for people who supposedly didn’t want “the adults” – a term used to lump together anyone in the older generations, whether it’s parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles – peeking into their social lives. The answer is this: most people forget the meaning of embarrassing adults isn’t limited to family; it can also mean siblings and cousins – people of similar age, the same generation – who can understand. Keeping in touch with family on Facebook doesn’t mean making a group where everyone can have a virtual family reunion, though some people do. Despite the enormity of what the phrase suggests, sometimes keeping in touch with family on Facebook simply means having your sister or bother as a friend, interacting with them as with any other friend. Generally speaking, this is a positive factor of Facebook.

For example, Mandy* discussed how Facebook was only a small part of her contact with her sister, but a positive one overall. “More important talks are held over the phone,” she asserted, stating she had a close relationship with her siblings and leaned on them a lot. Facebook wasn’t essential for them to be close, but it added a positive element to their interactions, “more just for the fun of stuff… casual talk… just like jokes and small stuff that creates humor.” While Mandy enjoyed the added element of casual interaction in between phone interactions, she made it clear Facebook was not instrumental in her communication with her sister. “I would still know her fairly well,” she said upon being asked what would happen if Facebook were no longer available to them. “It wouldn’t really matter…with family, no. With friends, yes.” For siblings, Facebook simply added another element to their interactions with each other – a positive element but not an essential, indispensable one.

In another interview, Cheryl* also stated Facebook was a positive factor in her relationship with her sister. “I actually do find out more about her through this type of medium,” Cheryl told me. “She seems to put herself out there for the world more…and for us, it’s making us closer.” While Cheryl also kept in touch with her sister through text messaging, she felt more comfortable with Facebook because their contact wasn’t specifically geared towards each other, but more general contact as with other friends, through status updates. “We really don’t talk too much,” she admitted, going further to admit this was the only sister really tech savvy enough to have a Facebook account, not the sister she was closest to. For all Facebook did in allowing them to know more about each other, it still hadn’t changed the basic status of their relationship.

Student-Educator Relationships

Since Facebook expanded to include everyone, a surprising number of teachers and professors have joined in order to keep in contact with their colleagues, current and past students, as well as friends and family. Sixteen percent of respondents surveyed keep in contact with teachers, professors, and teacher assistants through Facebook. When searching for Facebook groups that were created specifically for teachers and professors to join, hundreds of groups appear. Groups such as “High School English Teachers” and “Law Professors” have hundreds of educators joining with hopes of uniting with each other on Facebook. Even groups created by students that recognize specific teachers or professors have emerged on Facebook, similar to fan pages of famous celebrities. Facebook has redefined the “professional” or more formal relationship, changing the interaction and communicative style between educators and students.


258 group members!?! Are instructors the new celebrities online?

Facebook transformed the student-teacher relationship, creating an environment more encouraging for students to interact with their educators and to build a more personal relationship with them. Tim*, a high school teacher for the past 25 years, found Facebook made it easier for him to get to know his students: “Facebook allowed me to connect with many more students, especially the more quieter and shy ones that I normally wouldn’t be able to connect with. You have so many students in each class that it’s too difficult to know each and every one of them, but Facebook allows you to do so.” Facebook is a platform that brings people together, allowing for the most unlikely relationships to develop and solidify. Facebook transforms these impersonal or formal types of relationship into more personal ones, redefining the educator-student relationship and roles.

Tim estimates about 80% of students in his classes are his friends on Facebook and keeps in touch with them regularly: “I like posting updates about when grades are available or when projects and essays are due. I also answer questions about homework or anything else that needs to be addressed. These kids check Facebook more than anything else, so I’m just doing what is more efficient and keeping up with the times.” Facebook creates better relationships between educators and students by promoting healthy new communication. With regards to keeping up with the times, Ito et al. argues that “youth could benefit from educators being more open to forms of experimentation and social exploration that are generally not characteristic of educational institutions” (Ito et al: 2008). Facebook and other networking sites are available for educators to utilize and incorporate their teaching methods, which can aid in developing better relations between them and their students. Tim* uses this new platform as a beneficial tool: “I’m able to learn so much more from my kids through Facebook because I’m able to build relationships with them outside of school. I get to really know who they are and what they believe and that gives me a better understanding of them, which makes me a better teacher.” Facebook is more than a social networking site these days. It can be seen as a bridge that closes gaps, which largely existed in the past between students and teachers.

Facebook allows for more intimacy between educators and students, but when it comes to boundaries, where is the line drawn? John*, one of Tim’s* colleagues working at the same school, shares how conflicting it is to know some students too well: “I see some of my students in drunken photos and ask myself what to I do with this information. Do I interfere? Do I talk to them?” He stumbles upon this moral dilemma many teachers and educators face because of this overload of personal information available and shared on Facebook. Though Facebook enhances the student-educator relationship, it also brings up boundary issues since it is a new level of interaction between teachers and students that has not yet been defined.

Privacy

The issue of privacy is paramount in any experience, whether in the online world or in real life. It is an issue of special significance and importance in any virtual forum or social networking site due to the vast amount of information available, information just a click away. In the case of Facebook, there were many aspects of privacy to look at in trying to understand the broader scope of how issues of privacy are perceived and its affect on people using the site. In constructing data collection, at the beginning there were three major aspects of privacy which seemed the most important to study: The notion of “tagging pictures” and being able to do so without the permission of others in the picture, how much information users made available in their profile, and users’ opinions on data mining or having their information sold by Facebook.

Surprising information came from this research. Eighty percent of those in the survey said they were “not bothered at all” by the idea of Facebook selling their information or data mining through the site. The same number, however, said that they were most bothered by “unflattering” or “embarrassing” pictures of them appearing on Facebook. Individual interviews supported the information previously gathered in the surveys. As *Elizabeth, a third year at UCLA put it, “Facebook pictures and tagging can be a really big deal. It seems like its stupid but I got in this really big fight over it. One of my [sorority] sisters kept posting pic[ture]s of us where she looked great but I looked awful, or I was wasted. I kept asking her to take them down but she just said no every time. I don’t talk to her anymore.” Elizabeth’s reaction is not uncommon. Among those surveyed, 80% said they have asked a friend to take down pictures of them that were unflattering. What’s even more surprising is the reaction of Elizabeth’s sorority sister is not uncommon – 100% of the same participants in the survey, when asked if they ever asked permission before tagging or posting pictures of other people, said no, and 60% said they would not take down a picture if they looked good in it even if a close friend asked.

These results are surprising and telling. While Facebook and other social networking sites started out as merely places to come together to keep in touch with friends and family, they have evolved to become something even more – an alternate identity, shaped by the information in their profile, the number of friends, and yes – the pictures. Some people rely on Facebook to convey an accurate sense of who they are or wish they were, so it is no wonder that pictures play such an important role. People who look bad in them desperately want them removed while those who look good in them feel the right and need to keep them up. Because this is the only part of privacy that affects their online attractiveness it is the part which users, specifically women, worry the most. While 80% of users have asked others to take down pictures, 100% of the women surveyed said they had asked a friend to take down unflattering pictures, and 90% said they would not take a picture down if they looked good in it.

Data mining, selling information, possible problems with having address or phone number or place of work in their profile are all issues that seem far away to most Facebook users. These issues don’t seem to affect them, while a bad picture posted by a friend is a real and constant annoyance. *Erin, a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, had what she considers a “minor” problem with having too much information in her Facebook profile. “I put my address up in my profile and my number and stuff so my friends could always contact me or for parties. But this guy who lives in my apartment started coming over all the time ‘cause he saw on Facebook that we lived in the same complex…It got really weird. But other than that, I think the picture thing is worse.” This account shows that even among the people who have had bad experiences with “Facebook stalking,” the idea of bad pictures of them showing up is more troublesome. As in MMO’s, Facebook and other social networking sites can act as “new third places for informal sociability” (Steinkuehler and Williams: 2006) for which one’s online identity is crucial. In everyday life, one’s actual appearance is important in the social sphere and the representation of oneself through pictures can become just as important on a social networking site.

Conclusions:

Facebook’s influence on the social habits and ways of communication for its users is, if nothing more, undeniable. It has, more than many other kinds of on-line services, connected people despite geographical boundaries, language barriers, and differences in age. Teachers can now be “friends” with their students – and contrary to the old saying – parents can be their children’s “friends.” Facebook has changed the way people interact with their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Because of the ease of use and the constant bombardment of information it is now possible to know exactly what your great aunt Millie (whom you’ve never met) had for breakfast and whether her toast was burnt. As Thompson writes, even in the early days of Facebook the idea of constantly updating it to reflect you at that point in your life – ‘“hating Monday,” “skipping class b/c i’m hung over,”’ (Thompson: 2008) – was popular because people could constantly change the digital face that they presented to the world.

The question that has been asked in this scope of research is: what are the long-term effects of this new “ambient intimacy” that has caused the explosion in communication? The research seems to suggest that, all in all, Facebook has been a much more positive force in people’s lives than negative. It has helped families stay in touch, helped students network with each other and discuss classes, helped teachers get to know students. Like any new technology, there is and always will be the possibility of abuse by some users, and has certainly caused problems for some people. Privacy issues have worried some, while others worry about the blurring line between authority figures and their underlings. The most important thing coming out of this research is that perception, especially in the online world, is reality. When asked if they felt unsafe on Facebook, the majority said no. When asked if it helped their relationship with family, they said yes. If the people using it are happy with the service, then they will continue to use it and the communication boom that has occurred with social networking sites will continue evolving to meet the needs of its users.





Works Cited:
Mimi Ito et al.
2008 Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project.

Reed, Adam
2005 “My Blog Is Me”: Texts and Persons in UK Online Journal Culture (and Anthropology). Ethnos 70(2): 220-42.

Steinkuehler, Constance, and Dimitri Williams
2006 Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11(4): article 1.

Thompson, Clive
2009 Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. New York Times, Sept. 7.

Tong, Stephanie Tom, with Brandon Van Der Heide, Lindsey Langwell, and Joseph B. Walther
2008 Too Much of a Good Thing? The Relationship Between Number of Friends and Interpersonal Impressions on Facebook. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(3): 531–49.