facebook disc

Facebook encourages people to be more sociable and acts as a form of personal biography, according to a research project conducted by a Cambridge University social anthropologist and BT.

Our research suggests that social networking sites can bolster past and weaker tie relationships as well as strengthen stronger tie ones, but it should not be seen as a technology of communication which is independent of other forms.

the researchers

Their research, Archiving the Self? Facebook as biography of social and relational memory, counters more negative studies suggesting that the spread of Facebook and other social networking sites makes us less social and that its widespread use is testament to the decline of our social skills.

Based on focus groups with students and interviews, the researchers, Kathleen Richardson from the University of Cambridge and Sue Hessey, principal research professional at BT Innovate, found that, rather than diminishing social interaction, Facebook offers people more choice on how they continue relationships and serves as "a way of archiving the self, storing biography and enhacing social memory".

As such, it may change the way people associate at a very fundamental level, meaning that we can revive former relationships and associations throughout our lives.

The research will be presented at a debate on the evening of 25th October at the Michaelhouse as part of the University of Cambridge's first Festival of Ideas. The Festival runs from 22nd October to 2nd November.

It found that many people use Facebook to look into other people's lives, particularly people they fancy or ex-partners, with Facebook profiles and pictures often giving away more information than could be gleaned from a phone call or letter. But they also use it to keep in touch with old school and university friends who might otherwise be "lost".

The researchers said that in this way Facebook acted as "a mechanism for personal biography" in a world where people move jobs and move towns or countries on a much more regular basis than in the past. Facebook provides "a means to collect the 'depository of people you once used to know'," say the researchers.

"Our research suggests that social networking sites can bolster past and weaker tie relationships as well as strengthen stronger tie ones," they say, "but it should not be seen as a technology of communication which is independent of other forms."

The researchers say: "We found that Facebook adds to the repertoire of communications media that people use, with its application for different types of relationship very much evident, depending on the quality, longevity, intimacy and regular face-to-face contact nature of the existing relationship."

They found that existing close relationships were not affected by Facebook. For instance, partners rarely communicated via Facebook, although they often appeared on the friends list. However, Facebook did allow participants to be social with a wider range of people by providing regular contacts and updates and by giving more choice to users over how they communicate. It did not, however, generate any new relationships, but it does appear to be changing the way people create new relationships.

The researchers cite the instance of potential partners. Whereas in the past they would exchange phone numbers, they could now ask if the person was on Facebook and then send them a friend request and set up a more equal relationship than one which relies on one party to make the person who took the phone number to call.

The research highlighted a generation gap between Facebook users with older users preferring to meet people face to face rather than engage online and younger users just slotting Facebook in amongst their repertoire of social interactions and communications. Younger users also tended to be more open about who their Facebook friends were while those over 25 were more resistant and often more judgmental on the process of acquiring friends and interacting with Facebook.

People used Facebook for "slow" communication, rather than urgent messages. Although it was highly valued, responses to postings were not expected instantaneously.

There also appeared to be rules developing around Facebook use, for instance, people had to have met a Facebook friend at least once physically before they were accepted as a friend.

The researchers found that there was no obligation to keep in constant touch with Facebook friends. Many lay dormant on the friends list for some time. "Simply the fact that they are there appears good enough," say the researchers.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.