Social media, email and relationship inflation

Umair Haque has a post at Harvard Business Review advancing the following hypothesis which he dubs “relationship inflation”:

Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.

A year ago I was blogging as part of a class on Social Media & Business at American University and I wrote a post that touched on a related issue: how email use affects relationships.  I’ve reposted it below.

In short, I I think Umair may be right about the devaluation of the term “relationship” but I’m not convinced that the addition of thin relationships through social media has any negative impact on thick relationships, though I’d love to take a look at research bearing directly on this topic.

My original post “Online or in person? We can (and do) have it both ways” is reposted after the jump.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Online or in person? We can (and do) have it both ways

A few of my classmates have written posts that seem to suggest a trade-off between interactions in person and interactions online.

It seems to me that the underlying assumption in all of these posts is that online interaction takes place at the expense of in-person interaction, and vice versa. I think it’s worth pointing out that in practice this doesn’t seem to be the case.

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that:

Contrary to fears that email would reduce other forms of contact, there is “media multiplexity”: The more contact by email, the more in-person and phone contact. As a result, Americans are probably more in contact with members of their communities and social networks than before the advent of the internet.

In his book The Wealth of Networks, Harvard’s Yochai Benkler surveys the literature and comes to the same conclusion:

Relations with one’s local geographic community and with one’s intimate friends and family do not seem to be substantially affected by Internet use. To the extent that these relationships are affected, the effect is positive….
…Connections with family and friends seemed to be thickened by the new channels of communication, rather than supplanted by them. (Chapter 10)

This fits with how most of us use the internet, and with how we use social networking. Online communication supplements in-person interaction. We keep up with friends whom we might otherwise see only once a week or month using Facebook, Twitter, and email.

Just as online communication supplements in-person interaction, online communities frequently organize in-person meetings to strengthen their online ties. The progressive blogosphere comes together annually for Netroots Nation (formerly YearlyKos) and countless groups use Meetup.com to coordinate meetings and events offline.

Here’s the best part… Where do we get all the extra time to augment our relationships with email and social networking, according to Benkler? By watching less TV!

The post was lightly edited to remove a handful of quotes from classmates. The original is here.