Many people my age dismiss social networks and the friendships people have on those networks as a waste of time and shallow. I think that they totally missing the point – and creating another class of ludites that will be laughed at in a few decades.
Let’s take three common scenarios and analyze whether those relationships are indeed shallow or not.
If my 13 year old son has friends on Facebook or some other social network, and he uses those networks to continue interacting with his friends after school, or when then move on to high school – are those shallow relationships? Of course not, it enables him to extend his interactions with class mates beyond school hours, stay in touch with people who change school, or extend his relationship with weekend-only friends or summer camp friends to everyday relationships. It makes his relationships stronger – not weaker or more shallow than the friendships I grew up with.
Now let’s look at people who I know professionally and befriend of Facebook. I get to know people from a totally different angle than I would have ever gotten to know them from our professional interactions. Through social networks I will get a better sense of their hobbies, their music taste, their reading preferences, or even their family struggles – strengthening that relationship beyond the weak ties that professional relationships typically lead to.
Ok, so how about those people you accept as friends on Facebook or Myspace that you do not really know. In my case I am a blogger and I have an audience. Whenever someone befriends me on Facebook and we have more than 10 friends in common I will friend them back. I look at it as an audience – and through social networking I actually strengthen the relationship I have with my audience. The same can be said for bands on Myspace – they can create relationships with their fans that is much stronger than we ever had with the bands we liked.
Now I will not befriend someone who I do not know on LinkedIn. Why? Because on LinkedIn the reciprocity that makes that network work is based on social capital I have with others instead of just myself. For LinkedIn to work I need to try to get you some time with someone else I know, not just give you my time as is the case with Facebook and some other networks.
So all in all I think that a majority of online social networkers benefit from stronger relationships with people they interact with online, not weaker or shallower relationships. Social networking adds a dimension to most relationships that was previously not there.
Sure, there are outliers out there who do not benefit from stronger relationships by being online – and a ton of them who are wasting their time and your time – but those are outliers. They actually exist in the physicall world as well.