The advent of social network sites like Facebook and Twitter have allowed people to keep in contact with old classmates, family and friends all over the globe in a way that would not have been possible a couple of years ago.
There are more than 500 million people on Facebook, and the average Facebook user has 130 confirmed friends. However, many users have more – in excess of a thousand in some cases.
However, does this mean these people are popular and have many friends outside of cyberspace? Quite often the opposite can be true.
A shocking case in the UK recently saw a women with almost a thousand Facebook friends post a suicide message on her Facebook page, only to be mocked by some of her so-called friends.
When someone finally read the message and managed to inform a person close to her, it was too late.
Incidents like these have caused people to question the role of these sites, as well as a the value of the connections built on them, especially when it seems they might come at the expense of spending time with the people around you.
According to Cindy Blekaitis, programme facilitator with the Family Resource Centre, it is important that users of social networks are clear on what they expect the site to do for them.
“The confusion lies with the objective of the friendship- is the desire to make lots of friends that you may never have meaningful conversations with, or to stay connected with friends that you see on a semi-regular basis?
People often use these sites to socialise with people in their social circle (home or abroad). In some cases the bond may already be strong and Facebook or Twitter are just ways to keep in touch,” she says.
Social network sites give the user the opportunity to interact with many other users, some of whom they already have preexisting bonds with. In these cases, the network allows friends and family who may be geographically far apart to remain informed on what the other person is doing.
This can then help in the strengthening of bonds, as the disconnect that can occur when you do not keep up with the daily lives of the other person can be greatly reduced. However, when people look at the effect of social networks, these are usually not the connections most under scrutiny.
The more interesting connections are those with people who only know each other through an online presence, or conversely, those who live in close proximity but seem to interact primarily through social networks.
It is important to differentiate between the bonds formed on a social network site and those built through actual interaction with people. The bonds with Facebook friends with whom no preexisting bond exists, can best be termed ‘weak’ bonds.
This immediately implies a qualitative evaluation of the bond and its inherent value. Of course, this is not to say that the bond has no value at all – it can be very useful when it comes to garnering information on the person’s home town, line of work and similar issues.
That can even help when looking for employment, even more so when looking at a site like LinkedIn.
These weak bonds can also form the basis for building an actual friendship. This is especially relevant in cases where people may end up finding others with similar interests who live in the same geographical area.
However, one of the great concerns is that people could end up neglecting their relationships with the people around them in favour of spending time with their online friends.
After all, trying to keep up with the status updates of a thousand friends, looking at their photo albums of vacations, children, pets, and all the rest can take hours out of your day.
This is time not spent with people close to you, which equates to time spent neglecting the strong bonds in your life.
The effect of this, when taken to the extreme, is someone with a thousand weak bonds on Facebook, and nothing but weak bonds at home.
“Isolation can come when your only source of social interaction are these sites. For example if your friends aren’t logged on then you have no one which leads to isolation,” says Blekaitis.
In order to avoid this sort of isolation, it may be necessary to institute some ground rules. This is especially vital for families that need to make time in their busy days to connect.
If you find yourself spending more time on Facebook or Twitter than you do with your spouse or children, it might be time to put a time limit on your daily social network interactions.
It is important to realise that social network sites can supplement, but not replace, traditional interaction.