Early conceptions of online social experience envisioned “cyberspace” as a separate world. John Perry Barlow imagined the residents of cyberspace as declaring independence from the physical world. As the use of the internet spread, it became clear that most people use the net in a way that is much more integrated to physical location. A recent study out of Hebrew University shows that most people’s Facebook friends physically closeby, among 100,000 Facebook users. Now, you might think that this is related to Facebook’s bidirectional model and reputation as a site for friends and family. But the study also found that most people also correspond by email with people in the same city (out of 4455 email messages). People’s actual social networks include many people close by.
This research is interesting, but it doesn’t capture other relevant relationships between online and face to face interactions. The email data captured location only within a city, and modern metro areas have sprawl. Among people in the same city further than walking distance or a quick drive, how often do they meet f2f, and what is the correlation between correspondence and meeting? Among a person’s overall social network, how many of the people, far AND near, are visited f2f some of the time? Is there a positive correlation between staying in touch online and getting together offline?
One of the hottest trends in social software is location services such as FourSquare and Gowalla, which tell users where their friends are. Less flashy but similar tools like PlanCast and TripIt tell people where their friends and business associates are going to be. Do these sorts of tools affect how often people connect in person? Do people meet more often? Might these tools provide vicarious experiences that displace meeting, and do people who use them actually meet less?
My anecdotal experience is that online and offline connections go together. With people who live more than, say, 10 minutes away in the same metro area, and people who live in different cities, I’m more likely to meet up face to face with the people who I see and correspond with online, and more likely to be out of touch with people I don’t see online, and meet up with them more rarely. Mark “Cheeky Geeky” Drapeau expands on this observation in Social media is useless in isolation. Drapeau observes that the set of people he corresponds with in social media extends the number of people he stays in touch with at a distance, and some of these become contacts he will periodically see in person.
I would argue that while there is such a thing as a “social media relationship,” those relationships have three main classes: (1) thin relationships, (2) thin relationships with potential, (3) relationships reinforced by real-life interactions (however infrequent). This third class is where most of the value is generated – One can generate “leads” through social media, take some relationships to the next level, create meaningful real life interaction in some form, and then strengthen the real-life relationship through interim social media use. This positive feedback loop is critical; IRL reinforces social media, and vice versa.
The Israeli researchers study showing that people have the most frequent interaction between friends and family who live nearby is not so surprising. It would be very interesting to see if the correlations that Mark Drapeau and I observe anecdotally are quantitative trends, or is the opposite true. Are there segments and psychographic patterns for the ways that people connect online and offline use – people who are clan-centric, spending most of the time with kin, network builders like Drapeau who have many online/offline relationships, and digital hermits, whose social life consists mostly of online correspondence? The evidence shows that online and offline sociality is connected – it will be interesting to learn even more about the connections. Links to other research would be most welcome.