Social Media Wants to Connect the World, but How Meaningful Are the Connections?

How effectively can social media networks fulfill the need for friendship? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Erica Friedman, Founder of Yurikon LLC; Social Media Without Delusion, on Quora:

How effectively can social media networks fulfill the need for friendship? 100% effectively to 0% effectively, depending on the person.

I'm going to propose a persona--an average person. Her name is Joanna. Joanna has two kids who are in their late teens, has a job that she likes in an office, Joanna likes get-togethers with family and friends. She doesn't travel much, but she and her friends and their spouses often go over each other's houses for pot-luck family parties. She watches TV, sometimes goes out to a movie, and is a casual fan of pop music and culture. She's moderately physically active. Fairly average, yes?

How likely do you think Joanna is to have online friends? Well, you can't tell from her profile, can you? Maybe she has friends she kept in touch with when they moved, people she's met at work conferences or through hobbies. But what we can infer is that Joanna is more likely to hang with people in person. For Joanna, online is an extension of real-life friendships, a way to stay in touch with people she knows and has met.

Now we turn to Terry. Terry's also a working mom, two kids (late teens), same, same, same. The difference between Terry and Joanna is that Terry is a fan of Otome games [1]. Terry likes her neighbors, but their lack of interest in a topic she finds compelling makes their conversations somewhat unstimulating. She's as glad as anyone to watch hockey, but she just played the original Angelique game [2] for the first time and really wants to talk to someone about it. Guess where she goes?

So, where Joanna's friendships have geographic, familial, and circumstantial origins, Terry has interest-based friendships. Joanna has folks she knows from her kids' school, from work, family, and hobbies. Terry's friends share her interest.

Terry has a niche hobby that will certainly give her a chance to speak with folks all over the world who also like Angelique, but those folks are scattered thinly across the globe. They "meet" online, they talk online, they hang out online. For Terry, in-person meetings are an extension of online friendships.

Terry's relationships are just as real as Joanna's; they are simply shaped differently. In fact, Terry might talk with her friends more often than Joanna, who gets together with them every few weeks, or not. Both sets of relationships are equally valid, and serve the same functions for the people in them.

For many, online communities provide a wider and larger pool of people from whom to draw than mere geographic/circumstantial friendships. While it is true that online, no one knows you're a dog, you can also become a dog online and meet the rest of your pack, if that's what you want.

Footnotes

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