Online friends can be GOOD for you!

In an article in the most recent issue of The Biologist, reported by the BBC among others, Dr Aric Sigman writes about the biological implicatons of social networking. He looks at certain aspects of online interaction, mostly physical and concludes that there is substantial evidence to suggest that there are negative effects of excessive periods of time online and a reduction in “direct social connections”.

I am sure that Dr Sigman’s work is worthy and accurate scientifically, but I can’t let it go by without a comment. As with others’ studies, he fails to distinguish between different types of social interaction online.

Social networking is just a tool for you to communicate with others of your online contacts (it’s one to one). It is online community (one to many or many to many) which provides a genuine way to meet and connect with people online. There is also evidence to suggest to that online interaction – in genuine communities – can be a part of each person’s social network that supports health and well-being.

Quite possibly it’s too early in our use of online social spaces to compare it with traditional interactions. It just hasn’t been around long enough yet for behaviour to become normalised. The technology can still get in the way. However there have been studies in the areas of evolutionary psychology and biology which have indicated that the biological basis of social behaviour can also be expressed online – one example is Ken Thompson’s research into bioteams and swarmteams . Here are some anecdotal examples:

  • There’s no need to “phone a friend” when you can instantly ask a question of hundreds of people (not friends) on Twitter
  • Shy children can get a lot out of it: a shy teenage boy for example first learned valuable interpersonal skills and how to lead a team when online in the Half Life gaming community and was then able to make use of these developed skills in his “real” life.

With good moderation, online spaces provide an additional – not replacement – social space with different affordances i.e. it’s good for different types of interactions.

  • On Kids on the Net, a safe moderated space for young writers run by Reach Further’s Helen Whitehead, Jade aged 12 posted a message about how she and her mum were failing to cope with the death of her father and didn’t feel that they could speak to anyone (face to face) about it yet. Within 24 hours she had responses from 4 continents from children who had similar experiences or were just offering support. Online friends can be enormously helpful.
  • Friends on a crafting forum noticed that an overwhelmed mum had been posting increasingly depressed messages and when she suddenly stopped posting they mobilised the forum, and found someone who lived near her to drop in and find out how she was. The lady in question was incredibly moved and heartened by the show of support which she simply wasn’t seeing in her “real” life.

What online spaces can offer to people connecting for learning and business can wait for another blog post (or another hundred…) It’ll be interesting to see what research throws up in another 5 or 10 years…

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