That's What Friends Are For

Is friendship as we know it changing with the advent of social media?  A recent article in the New York Daily News declares that “Despite Social Media Connections, Most People Only Have a Few Close Friends.”  The article claims that although the rise of social media has made it easier than ever to connect online, this does not affect how many close friends we actually have.

This information comes from a recent study conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom. They analyzed whether or not “social signatures,” or the manner in which we divide our communication efforts among our friends and family, are consistent over time. They tracked the cellphone data of 24 students aged 17-19 for a year and a half, noting who they called the most frequently. Along with this data, they also conducted surveys that rated the level of emotional closeness the subjects felt they had with the people in their network and how often they met face-to-face. Interestingly, they timed this study to coincide with life transitions, as the students progressed from school to work, or from school to university.

What the authors discovered was that even though these students were experiencing large network turnovers, as they were exposed to an abundance of new relationships, their social signatures remained consistent. Essentially, the number of close relationships the subjects had remained constant as their networks changed. As new relationships were developed, old ones were either relegated or decreased in importance.

As a sound consumer of data, what should one consider in assessing this study?  Two key caveats emerge:

  • First, it may not be appropriate to apply the observations made of a small sample group of 17-19-year-olds to the entire population. The social interactions of a teenager are often vastly different than those of individuals in later life stages. This raises the question of whether an 18 month period of change for a teenager is indicative of a persistent social signature over a lifetime.
  • Second, while the article discusses how the results relate to social media, the study itself does not observe social media at all. The only correlation the researchers studied was between social signatures and the frequency of phone calls. Whether the participants were even active on social media is unknown, which could have had an effect on the study’s conclusions if observed.

Despite the eye-catching headline, the question studied here is very limited with respect to social media’s influence on friendship. 

Today's Everydata blog post was authored by Mia Kim.