Discussions about social media tend to buy into hyperboles about the supposedly fundamental ways it’s changed how we communicate. Some of these claims seem to have been borne out — like the claim that platforms like linkedin make professional networking easier — while some haven’t.
It’s worth looking at social media’s claims to revolutionize the friendship. By making interaction easier and portable, does social media help us strengthen our current friendships through increased interaction, or maintain relationships to those with whom we don’t interact, face-to-face, on a regular basis? Put another way: does social media, in practice, lower the barriers to relationship-building and maintenance?
A 2011 Pew Research study found that 71% of respondents aged 18-29 cited staying in touch with current friends as a major reason for using social networks, while 55% of those aged 30-49 said they used them to reconnect with old friends. The survey makes it clear that the respondents, by and large, weren’t using social media to establish new connections: only 9% of users said making new friends was a key reason for joining social media, while 84% said they weren’t using social media to find romantic partners.
The way in which social media was most often used by these respondents was to maintain or augment relationships with the people they already had regular in-person contact with. This kind of relationship maintenance looks like tagging people in memes and pictures, posting “happy birthday” on their walls or reaching out to them on messenger apps.
In my own experience, these kinds of connections form the bulk of my interactions on social media; they don’t, however, really change my day-to-day relationships with the recipients. Social media may add a parallel dimension to our relationship, a digital sphere that hosts events that inform our face-to-face interactions, but it doesn’t seem to fundamentally change the nature of my friendships.
Social media has, however, proved revolutionary in my life in that it has allowed me to maintain connections that would have otherwise lapsed. When my family left a town i’d lived in for 5 years when I was 13, I was able to preserve my relationships with my friends there in that parallel digital dimension for longer than I would have been able to otherwise. The relationships did require regular physical trips home to maintain, but in the interim, likes on each others’ posts and semi-regular Facebook conversations kept our connection alive. It’s clear that social media does have the potential to be important in instances similar to this one.