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Are social networks like Facebook and MySpace bringing us closer together or making us less social?

An excellent example of paper 2 by Adeline Brainard - Fall 2010

Some people spend hours on social network sites. Most of our society is not a gemeinshaft anymore and it is not always common to have a sense of a close small community. People may not talk to their neighbors but they may interact with hundreds of people on a social network each day. According to Facebook's statistics page there are more than 500 million active users, 50% of active users log on to Facebook in any given day, the average user has 130 friends and people spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook . Could this new way of socializing be a way to keep personal ties or make our social ties more superficial?

Erving Goffman called the efforts that we use to manage the impressions that others receive of us impression management. "We have ideas of how we want others to think of us, and we use our roles in everyday life to communicate those ideas." (Henslin, p.103) on social websites even the shyest people can make an impression. They have their own personalized page and they control the impression they make on other people. It is like the internet version of impression management. People display their likes and dislikes, pictures of themselves and how they are feeling at any moment. Some people use these sites for business networking purposes and portray themselves more professionally. People use these personalized websites as front stages just like people use their roles in everyday life to show others how they want to be portrayed. The difference is that there is even more control over the websites for people to make their impression. They can take a moment to decide if they want to show a picture or share something that happened to them. Unlike in "real" life they are able to take a moment to edit what they say or even erase something they do not like. That is why even though the internet can be just as instant as the real world people sometimes have more control in the virtual world, if they use it wisely.

Milgrim's study of six degrees of separation was proved to not be as successful as people thought. "People who don't know one another are dramatically separated by social barriers." (Henslin, p.122) although one similar experiment was done with email instead of letters it was still unsuccessful. But now that we have social networks could it be that it is becoming a "small world"? Many people that do not know someone well or even at all will become "friends" on these sites. The site will suggest friends to you according to mutual friends that you and that person has. It brings people together and the process of knowing someone that knows someone that knows someone can go on and on if you want it to.

People are so busy these days that it is difficult to maintain social and family relationships. By Ferdinand Tonnies definition our society is mostly gesellschaft. (p. 98) Our lives no longer center on family. On these websites you can be in touch with everyone you know. You can see what your old classmates from grade school are doing and pictures of their vacation and kids. In this way it brings people closer together. It brings people in touch with people when they may not have time for contact otherwise.

On the other hand these sites can be impersonal and immediate. Limiting your social interaction to only brief messages and not face to face interaction could change people socially. Also it is not a conversation with one person it is multimedia and many people all at once saying what they are doing, sharing videos and playing games. You do not have to pay attention to one thing or one person. If a friend posts something you do not have to respond because it was not to you personally and they do not have to know that you saw it. Human interaction could be altered eventually because we might start adapting to this new medium for socializing.

Georg Simmel explored the significance of group size. "As a small group grows larger, it becomes more stable, but its intensity, or intimacy, decreases." (p. 130 Henslin) It makes someone wonder what the size of a group on a social network means. The size could be very large; people can be connected around the world. The intimacy is decreased by the amount of people someone is dealing with online.

Young people who are more used to this way of socializing because they never knew a world without it may be at a disadvantage. They may not learn how to behave in a way that is socially acceptable in our society. They may not learn how people expect them to speak and behave professionally. With emails there are no social cues like eye contact body language and tone of voice. This could cause them problems when trying to get a job or other situations where a first social impression is important.

Because these children do not know any other way of life their social standards may become the norm over time. Maybe in the future people will not put an importance on the things we now think are important in social situations. Things that make a first impression now in our society like speaking clearly and looking people in the eye may lose their importance over time. Society is always changing. The people who grow up with these new social ways may not be disadvantaged after all because they will become the norm. If everyone starts using social networks to socialize through social construction of reality a changed way of socializing will become the standard normal thought of society.
Because almost anyone can access these sites and become "friends" and interact will people become more equal? It is highly unlikely that Facebook could solve the world's social problems for many reasons. Not everyone has access to a computer everyday or at all and not everyone has time. Although these sites are free and open to anyone a single mother working two jobs with no computer is not going to go to these sites as much as a teenager from a wealthy family who has nothing but time. In some ways though it can bring people together who would normally not ever meet or speak to each other on the street. It can open people to ideas and information they may not have come across normally.

If we use an example from the novel Ishmael this way of life is very far from a natural way to live. Sitting at a computer indoors and talking to people through emails is very far removed from a hunter gatherer society. Instead of going back to being a "Leaver" culture these social networks are a part of a "Taker" culture.

Like many modern conveniences and technology social internet sites are both a blessing and a curse. We can keep in touch with people no matter where in the world they are, meet new people and gain new information and perspectives on the world. On the other hand we can ignore real relationships and live in a virtual world.

Facebook Website ://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA
Quinn, Daniel 1993. Ishmael, Bantam