Do social networking sites improve your ability to network in real life?

Social networking connects friends all over the globe.
Social networking connects friends all over the globe.
Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

Your Facebook profile boasts 200 friends. On LinkedIn, you have 50 connections. On your Twitter account, you have 60 followers and you follow 30 people. Your social network is sizable -- more than 300 people and growing every day. You feel rather popular. But have you ever wondered if these online connections translate to real life?

Staying in touch online is easy. With a few strokes of the keyboard and a few clicks of the mouse, you're connected. Social networks allow us to keep in touch with each other through the various ways we share information. This information can be personal (digital photos, status updates, funny videos) or professional (linking to industry-specific articles, writing a testimonial for someone on LinkedIn).

Well before the Internet became a part of daily life, we used our social networks to get things done. Job hunting? It helps to know "someone on the inside." Looking for a date? Your friend's cousin has a single pal. Need a handyman to fix the broken stair? Ask your neighbors if they have anyone to recommend.

Online social networks take that local network you have and make it global. There's even a new word for it -- glocalization. You can search for a job in your area via your social network's job boards. You can cyber-flirt with an online cutie. You can look up a plumber online and then find customer reviews from people who've used him before.

But how are the two networks related? Do your online networks complement your real-life networks? Is the impact a positive one or a negative one? Optimists say that social networking via the Internet helps us to strengthen existing ties and forge new ones, leading to an improved social condition. Pessimists say that our online social networks keep us isolated and closed-off from other people's worldviews [source: Rainie].

Because the boom in online social networking is so new, there aren't a lot of hard numbers to prove either viewpoint. We can, however, take a look at some studies and learn what the experts have to say.

Social Capital

To understand how both our online and offline social networks benefit us, it helps to understand the meaning of social capital. We all know what our physical capital is. It's the measure of our belongings and our money -- our stuff. Social capital, on the other hand, is the measure of our connections with others -- our networks.

The main theory of social capital is that social networks are valuable. Having a social network provides you with benefits like trust, cooperation and information. Your social capital, then, is the collective value of the social networks with which you are connected. For example, when your neighbors are out of town, do you keep an eye on their house just to make sure everything's OK? That's social capital -- your network of neighbors looking out for each other. Have you ever gone to an Internet board in search of a support group? That's social capital in action. Your church, your book club, even your favorite neighborhood watering hole all provide you with social capital. You and your network share information, support each other, and may even work together for positive action (fundraising, charity work). Advocates of social capital believe that an abundance of social capital directly correlates with community issues like improved school performance, lower crime rates, better public health and reduced political corruption [source: Putnam].

However, research shows that the social capital of communities has declined considerably over the past few decades. Experts attribute it to urban sprawl. People don't all live in close proximity to each other anymore. They also blame television, busier lives and, sadly, a decline in our overall trust in each other [source: Saguaro Seminar].

Some people may also blame the decline of community social capital on the popularity of the Internet. However, the Internet actually helps to build social capital -- just in different ways. Studies show that the Internet doesn't conflict with people's connection to the community [source: Pew]. The Web actually helps people to maintain active contact within their network because they're not limited to geographically-restricted face-to-face interactions.

You may have 200 Facebook friends, but how many of these people are you actually close to? In the next section, we'll take a look at the different levels of your social network.

Professional Networking

Are the faces you see on your iPhone your friends in real life?
Are the faces you see on your iPhone your friends in real life?
Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

In 2006, the Pew Internet & American Life Project published a study titled "The Strength of Internet Ties." Its goal was to find out more about the nature of people's social networks. It found that our social connections break down into two basic types.

Core ties are the people with whom we are the closest. We're in frequent contact with them, we trust them and we turn to them when we need help or have questions. They're among our strongest relationships. Significant ties are the people outside of our core ties who are still connected. We probably have less frequent contact with them and turn to them less for advice or assistance. They're weaker than our core ties but a bit more than casual acquaintances. Significant ties may be important at times, when we need to reach outside of our core tie network for help.

The growth of these weak ties, as they're also called, is exploding. Online social networks allow us to collect weak ties and maintain them better than we would have without Facebook or Twitter reminding us of their existence. And even though we call them "weak," in certain situations your weak ties provide you with the most benefit.

Weak ties allow you to problem-solve more efficiently than you would with the help of your core ties. Let's look at an example. Say you recently lost your job and you're actively searching for leads on a new one. Your weak ties are actually more valuable to you than your core ties in this situation. This is because your core ties, your friends, are very similar to you -- that's why they're your core -- and probably can't give you any information you don't already have yourself. But your weak ties are at the outer edges of your network, and they know people and information that you don't. And because they're connected to you through your social network, they're more willing to help you than, say, an anonymous person on an Internet job board.

In today's dismal job market, social networking sites offer users an edge. The site LinkedIn targets the professional, white-collar employee. As you create a profile, the site suggests possible contacts -- people you may have known in previous jobs or through college and university. You can search for specific people, research companies you'd like to work for and reach out to the right people without having to navigate through a telephone switchboard maze. LinkedIn even lets you write recommendations for people you know, and allows them to return the favor. There's an old adage that states, "It's not what you know; it's who you know," and social networking sites prove that to be true. Social networking and the job market are such a great match that some colleges even offer seminars on how to network online [source: Perez].

We've seen how social networking sites can give you an advantage in the job market. But what about your social relationships?

Social Networks and Meaningful Connection

Social networking sites usually make the news for negative reasons. In 2006, teen Megan Meier committed suicide after suffering cyber-bullying through the social networking site MySpace. It turned out that the person bullying her wasn't even real, but a fictitious profile created by the mother of a classmate. The case attracted a lot of attention and calls for increased regulations for online networks [source: ABC News].

However, online social networks can also positively affect real life. Recently in England, a teen girl noticed that one of her Facebook friends seemed suicidal. She took action and contacted authorities, who tracked the boy down and saved him from a drug overdose. Even actress Demi Moore has taken such action. She noticed a suicide threat in her Twitter feed and mobilized her followers to call local police [source: Matyszczyk]. Yes, these examples are extreme, but they do illustrate the power of social networking and social capital. Even though none of these people knew each other in real life, they still reached out to help -- because of their connections to each other online.

So what's the relationship between online social networks and real life? Some people worry that because we can so easily connect with people online, we are less capable of meaningful connection in real life. Long before the Internet, psychologists coined the term parasocial relationships to describe the one-sided connection people tend to make with characters on television or movie stars they read about in magazines. Following celebrities on Twitter is a good example of a parasocial relationship. You're privy to details about that person's life, yet the celebrity in question usually has no idea that you even exist.

Some worry that these parasocial relationships can crowd out some of your actual, emotional relationships with others. The good news is that experts haven't yet seen any statistics that prove this. They believe that online social networks and other types of media (like cell phones) add to our social networking skills, not take away from them [source: Rainie]. Find out how on the next page.

Pros of Online Social Networking

A study focused on the virtual reality program "Second Life" found that online interactions seem to enhance real-life social skills. By giving users a common world and environment, the program facilitates social connection. The author of the study concluded that while our social and communication skills may be changing, they're not eroding [source: ScienceDaily].

Honestly, though -- out of all those hundreds of friends you have on Facebook, how many of them would you invite to a party, or to your wedding? How many of them would you call when your car breaks down? You're more likely in these situations to turn to your core ties. The important thing to remember with online social networks, as with the Internet in general, is that nothing can really replace face-to-face contact. Your networks should enhance your social and professional life, not replace it. If your online social networks replace or damage your real-life relationships, you may want to evaluate yourself for Internet addiction [source: Center for Internet Addiction Recovery].

And how about dating? How do your online social networks affect your personal life? More and more, we're hearing stories of miscommunications due to Facebook. Mostly these are just amusing -- for example, the couple who decided to move their relationship status from public to private and were immediately inundated with messages and condolences from concerned friends about their supposed breakup [source: Hines]. Some are more serious, like the woman who found out her husband was divorcing her by reading his status update [source: Tozer]. Incidents such as these simply underscore the importance of meaningful communication.

For more about social networks, explore the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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