3Qs: The social impact of social networks

Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business say the desire to indulge in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is just as addictive as smoking cigarettes. And other studies have shown that texting has become more popular than talking on the phone among all age groups. We asked Brooke Foucault Welles, assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design, to weigh in on the social impact of social networks and digital media.

Are we becoming dependent on digital media? If so, what are the implications?

In some ways, the answer to this is obviously yes, we are becoming more dependent on digital media. As digital media increase in functionality and decrease in price, it is no surprise that more and more of us are relying on digital media to work, play and socialize.

Beyond simple dependency, I think the more interesting question is whether or not digital media are displacing something important. That is, are we missing out on something because digital media are increasingly involved in our daily lives? That question is much trickier. On some level, people have always been concerned when new technology replaces old technology. Believe it or not, you can find articles from the early 1900s about how the telegraph was going to bring an end to civil society, cause children to run wild and precipitate a breakdown in interpersonal interactions. Sounds pretty familiar, right? There is very little evidence to suggest that the telegraph had any of those effects, and I think the same will prove true for the Internet and digital media. People will continue to adapt their behaviors as new tools become available, but fundamentally, communication practices and the ways in which we relate to one another will stay the same.

How do digital technology and social networks affect our social and interpersonal skills? Is social media actually making us less social?

Social media has actually had quite the opposite effect. Rather than disrupting our social and interpersonal skills, social media appear to magnify our existing social behaviors. If you tend to be socially isolated in the offline world, spending a lot of time online can intensify that. But the opposite is also true — if you tend to be a social butterfly in the offline world, social media can help you cultivate those connections. Recent research suggests that social media users tend to have larger social circles and more close social ties than non-users. They are also more likely to perceive their networks as socially supportive and more likely to be politically engaged than non-users. So, contrary to popular concerns that people who use social media are somehow limiting their abilities to make real interpersonal connections, the research suggests that social media can catalyze close, supportive, civically engaged relationships.

How do you predict social networks and digital communications will continue to shape our society?

A few things come to mind. Although I do not believe that digital media are fundamentally changing our social practices, one thing that is changing is the extent to which our social practices are recorded. In the past, most of our social interactions were private and undocumented. That is increasingly not the case. When we interact with others through the Internet, we leave digital records behind. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have huge databases full of all kinds of information about our social behaviors. We are just starting to harness the power of that information, using online social network data to, for example, predict voting behavior and the spread of infectious diseases. I think we will see a lot more of that in the future — using data about your social networks and behaviors to customize all kinds of experiences, from targeted marketing and advertising, to personalized web browsing, to healthcare informed by your social history.

I also hope that the rise of social media will help to remedy some long-standing gender and racial inequalities in the computing and information technology professions. Women and minorities have long been underrepresented in these fields, but as social media grow, so too does demand for people who are trained in fields such as computational social science, digital humanities and health informatics. These areas draw from fields that have historically attracted women and minorities and I hope the move towards social computing will make IT more inclusive in the future. Women and minorities have a lot to contribute, and having a population of technology producers that is more reflective of the population of technology users would be great for everyone.