For Intel’s Mobile Group ReD investigated the emergence of social networking and its potential impact on mobile devices. We developed an in-depth study of the mechanics behind relationship-building among young people in order to uncover how social networks–both online and off–affect the quality of their friendships.
We spent several weeks shadowing 40 people between the ages of 14 and 38 in London and Shanghai–those who use social networks and those who do not. We then characterized the building blocks of friendship, such as shared interests and experiences. Traditional, real-world relationships intensify only after people overcome barriers, such as time, distance, and emotional risk-taking. It’s after you ask for someone’s phone number, invite them on a night out, and don’t bail out on plans even when those plans are inconvenient that you gain their trust and become better friends.
Yet social networking technologies create no barriers to friendship at all. They amplify the breadth of networks by lowering barriers to connecting people–all friends are equal on social networking sites. While that’s effective for creating new relationships it’s ineffective for deepening an existing relationship. Without any built-in barriers like risk-taking and without any face-to-face time social networks are only efficient at abetting casual contact.
They lack the mechanisms to engender trust-building the way real world relationships do. Social networks tend not to reflect the different levels of friendship, nor do they offer a way to bring friendships to new levels.
Our research suggested that social networking is still in its infancy and that there are plenty of possibilities for another dimension of services designed around the tools and interactions that enable deeper friendships. These services seem especially well-suited for the mobile market because a phone can track and quantify who you spend time with, who you talk to most often, and whose contact information you possess.
Our research encouraged Intel to not only see what social networking is doing for people, but to ask the question about what it’s not doing.