Web 2.0 relationships, in praise of online connections
What does our social life look like in this age of online social networks? Do we now have more or fewer friends? Have digital technologies given people greater freedom and opportunities to get in contact with one another, or do they trap us in fragile, fleeting and uncertain relationships? These questions have been at the heart of an ongoing debate within social science research since the appearance of the public internet in 1995. The time has surely come to take stock of the findings of this research so we can lay to rest some of the persistent misunderstandings about our online social life.
Real life or virtual life?The first misunderstanding is based on the idea that we have two separate lives, one real, the other virtual, and that our relationships in the first have nothing to do with those in the second. In fact, online friendships and "real life" friendships are closely interlinked. Online conversations are very often nothing more than an extension of discussions, banter and chit-chat already initiated with our family, friends or colleagues. As numerous surveys have revealed, rather than being a hindrance or a detraction, a strong online life is generally indicative of a strong social life. Offline friendships are generally reinforced through a whole range of different forms of communication—telephone, email, social networks—and the people who use the latter the most have a greater number of friends in "real life" than those who use them less.
A new form of sociabilityThe second misunderstanding relates to the idea that only strong social ties are important in our lives, and that weak ties are artificial and futile, if not downright dangerous. While our online friends are more or less the same as our offline friends, surveys show that our rare romantic and family ties—those that are deemed stronger—are not at the heart of our online conversations. The most private discussions are rarely made public, with individuals preferring to engage in interpersonal interactions by telephone, text message or email. Social networks are less a signal of the end of private life and more a theatre of new forms of expression, where the personal is subject to a carefully crafted mise-en-scène. The biggest transformative effect of online social networks on the organisation of individuals' social lives is not the daring contact with strangers, nor the intimate interactions with those we know better. It is between these two things, within our directory of "weak ties", those indispensable intermediaries of our social lives, that the new online form of sociability is to be found: lifelong friends and occasional friends, colleagues, business partners, friends of friends, old acquaintances, people who are useful or interesting, people who matter, or who used to matter, or who we would like to matter more.
A waste of time?The final misunderstanding relates to the idea that the development of online networking has led to us wasting our time to no benefit. The web of social networks opens up an uninhibited space that is less restrictive than real life. Doubtless users sometimes waste time and energy there. But it is also true that through health-related discussion forums, the development of job hunting skills and participation in communities of interest, online relationships can also create new opportunities that, on occasion, spill out into individuals' social lives. On the internet, people store up contacts as reminders, opportunities and possibilities. They expose select aspects of their existence, share what interests or amuses them, seduce each other and offer advice, comment on and critique the world around them, try to make themselves stand out or work to ensure they are not forgotten. In their own playful, exhibitionist and curious way, social networks extend this sociability and closeness to the far reaches of the very "weakest" relationships, those which, being less secure and less accessible, evaporate forever in the offline world.
To a lesser extent than enthusiasts maintain, but to a greater extent than sceptics would have you believe, having an online social life widens our field of interpersonal relations. It reinforces stronger ties while opening doors to new opportunities. And through others, we can access information, knowledge and communities that will enrich our lives.