500 Friends And No One To Call: Insights On The Reality Of Social Networking


Online social networking was billed as the thing that would bring people closer. It hasn’t — and the stats from our recent survey prove it. In a survey of 423 people* on Facebook we found a big gap between what people expect and what Facebook delivers: 90% of respondents expect Facebook to deepen or strengthen their friendships yet only about a third (39.9%) say that the acquaintances they’ve met through Facebook have become close friends they can count on offline. What people do accept is that Facebook is a good relationship-management tool. Most people (95.1%) see a clear difference between “managing” a relationship (staying in touch) versus deepening a relationship (connecting in a meaningful way).

When we asked people whether Facebook is for managing or deepening relationships more than 50% tilted to the former:

  • 53.8% think Facebook is only good for managing relationships
  • 38.7% think Facebook helps them both manage and deepen relationships
  • 0.7% say Facebook is good for just deepening relationships
  • 2.2% say Facebook isn’t good at either managing or deepening relationships

By adding bullets 2 and 3 above (38.7% and 0.7%) it’s clear that a minority (about 40%) think Facebook is a good tool for deepening their relationships. That means that less than half of people are getting what they expect from Facebook. The gap is even wider for young people: For 18-30 year olds (20% of people surveyed) fewer than 25% think Facebook is useful for deepening their relationships. This is especially concerning because of recent studies showing how much time young people spend interacting with technology rather than one another. The Pew Research Center found that American teens between the ages of 12 through 17 are more likely to text friends via cellphones rather than to call them. And the Kaiser Family Foundation found that American kids between the ages 8 through 18 spend 7.5 hours daily using electronic devices. An April 30, 2010 New York Times article looked at the implications of losing trust-building experiences with friends as more and more kids rely on technology to communicate with each other.

Facebook doesn’t really make us closer

What’s significant for us is that we conducted this survey as a follow-up to a study we did about friendship and social networking for one of the world’s biggest tech companies. We suspected then that online social networks did not, despite their promises, bring people closer. We also realized that meant there was a big gap for developers to create more tools or services to promote a more intimate social space. That study was done in 2007, before Facebook became a global phenomenon. Even then it was obvious that Facebook’s promise of friendship would not be fulfilled.

During the study we identified the building blocks of friendship — talking on the phone, hanging out, and confiding in each other. All these activities build trust and involve risk — someone can betray your secrets or ignore your phone calls. It’s when they don’t that you become better friends. Then we looked at how people used online social networks. What we found was that online social networks amplify a network of friendships but fall short in mimicking the behavior that people traditionally illustrate when trying to deepen a friendship.

In real life we jump through hoops for friendship. Facebook makes it too easy. So what real life has, and which Facebook doesn’t have, are barriers to building a friendship. What keeps from pursuing friendships are prior commitments to family and friends, packed schedules, and a fear of feeling disappointed if the other person doesn’t reciprocate a gesture of friendship. It’s a risk to ask for someone’s phone number or to invite him out to a movie. Many friendships are greased by proximity — it’s less of a hassle to get together with people nearby than with people who live on the other side of town.

But if you look at online social networks like Facebook you quickly see how the platform removes all these impediments. Facebook bridges distances in a millisecond and bullhorns your feelings and activities out to everyone. Posting even a thoughtful note on someone’s “Wall” just doesn’t have the same oomph as a long conversation in a bar. Facebook eliminates the element of emotional risk—and that element is critical in developing deeper relationships with other people.

So we set up a question to establish some boundaries between what people feel comfortable sharing online and what makes they recoil. We asked people which of the posts below they felt were appropriate to post on Facebook. 92.8% think this is appropriate: “My son graduated from college.” 93.3% think this is appropriate: “I’m moving to Atlanta, does anyone know of an apartment?” 57.2% think this is appropriate: “My wonderful dad died last night” 10% or fewer feel these posts are appropriate: “I just had a miscarriage”, “I feel depressed and can’t go on”, “My wife left me”. The first two posts about a son graduating and a move to Atlanta are one extreme: Both are unoffensive and matter-of-fact. The last three posts about miscarriage, depression, and marital problems are the other extreme — all are intensely personal tragedies that are not appropriate for a public forum but which are appropriate for a 1-to-1 talk.

Facebook has no home for this kind of information because people are naturally guarded about their feelings and personal problems. What’s significant is that 57.2% think posting “My wonderful dad died last night” is okay. The phrase may be seen as okay because an aspect of the tragedy is phrased in a positive light (“wonderful dad”) or because death is a natural process in life and has no personal shame. All this suggests that people are uncertain about what’s okay to express emotionally without being a turn-off.

What if social networks learned to differentiate between friends?

So why is Facebook so disappointing to so many people who are ostensibly searching for intimacy with friends? Because Facebook isn’t designed to meet people’s traditional expectations of friendship. Except for privacy settings all contacts are equal on social networks. Facebook has no intelligent mechanism for figuring out who your close friends are or who you would like them to be. Instead, online social networks make it easy for people to accumulate friends rapidly and to make commitments easily. What define social networks most are promiscuous networking and a lack of depth in relationships. On average, our respondents indicated that they friended 40% of their Facebook friends simply because Facebook made it easy to do so rather than because they were already close friends.

In other words, for nearly half of people on Facebook the social network isn’t about friendship at all but is more like a public phone book or search engine — contact is minimal and impersonal. Yet many found some benefit via job leads or a better social scene: 82% confirm Facebook has increased their social and business networks faster and more easily than before they were on Facebook. They are split ways over the benefits of Facebook:

  • 34.6% say Facebook has led to more social activities and job opportunities in the real world
  • 40.8% say Facebook has led to more social activities in the real world
  • 2.2% say Facebook has led to more job opportunities in the real world
  • 22.4% say Facebook has not led to more social activities or more job opportunities in the real world.

The important numbers above are the 40.8% that now have a better social life thanks to Facebook and the 22.4% that have nothing more than before (no) thanks to Facebook. For the latter (22.4%), interestingly, though this group said Facebook has increased their social and business networks faster and more easily than before they also said those networks have not panned out in terms of social activities and job opportunities. So a number of those who see Facebook’s networking benefit don’t necessarily see a payout in the real world.

One thing social networking is good at is seeking and developing new connections. That’s especially true when it comes to exploring new interests that don’t require “friends” to be close by. So you and 6000+ others passionate, say, about the issues facing women writers can become a fan of WILA (Women in Literary Arts) on Facebook. Star gazers can join Facebook fan pages devoted to astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson. Fans of psychological thrillers and Batman will find their way to filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s page. But for most the buck stops there.

Transitioning online relationships into the real world becomes difficult not only because of geography but because interacting online is a different ball game from meeting in person. In person people create first impressions and convey emotion through their physical presence — and these characteristics may well conflict with the vibe you get from Facebook’s casual interactions.

Jun Lee is a partner at ReD Associates

*A note about our respondents:

  • Our 423 respondents are fans of Fast Company magazine’s Facebook page
  • We conducted the survey in April 2010
  • Respondents are equally distributed between those who have:
  • Less than 100 friends (17.5%)
  • etween 101 and 200 friends (26.1%)
  • Between 201 and 300 friends (21.1%)
  • Between 301 and 400 friends (12.7%)
  • Between 400 and 500 friends (7.9%)
  • 501+ friends (15.1%)
  • Our sample is skewed to females (61.4%) and high-income individuals (56.2%) who earn $76K or more annually
  • Most of our respondents (53.4%) are between 31and 45 years old; 20.9% are between 18 and 30; 24.9% are between 46 and 60 years old; 0.7% are more than 61 years old.

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