The Negative Impact of Social Networking on Relationships


There was some talk during the Enterprise 2.0 Conference last week that Social Networking was having a negative impact on our relationships.  This idea was put forward by Alcatel-Lucent’s Kathleen Culver during her session (#e2onf-25), but not everyone bought into the concept.

I for one agree with the observation. What I feel we are seeing is the flattening of our overall relationship depth.  To explain this, let me talk about the positive impact upon relationships first.

My Social Network Gains

My use of social networks is divided up into two groups, professional and social.  I know that this is not necessarily the norm.  That said, I have seen the tools that I use overall fall into two categories, regardless of focus:

  1. Network Mapping: This is LinkedIn (professional) and Facebook (personal).  If I know someone well enough, I link to them.  Essentially, the tie has to already exist. Obviously there is more that can be done with these tools, but we’ll hold off on that.
  2. Idea Sharing: This is Twitter and my blog, both professional in nature. I share ideas, both short and long, and over time the audience has grown.  This growth has been through connecting and sharing other ideas.  The connections are to mostly “new” ties.

LinkedIn, by itself, has not significantly grown my network.  It has just helped me keep track of my professional network.  LinkedIn’s capabilities have grown over the years, but my usage has not to a large degree.

As for Twitter/blogging, as of right now, I have about 900 people following me on Twitter and I am following about 200.  I’d guess that there are at least 10-20 people that I have met that I could readily reach out to and have a drink with if I was passing through their town.  A small handful of them might be upset if I didn’t reach out if I was passing through their neck of the woods

This is purely counting people that I wouldn’t otherwise know, not those that I’ve met through real life that I’ve connected to online after meeting in real life.

Overall, a net gain.  Let’s look at Facebook…

Weakening my Strong Ties

On Facebook, I have about 150 friends.  Most of them I knew before I joined Facebook, and a vast majority I met in real life first.  They include family members, my best man, and my closest friends from high school.

The people that I listed are people that I kept in touch with before Facebook.  There are many that I have resumed contact with since joining.  Typically we exchange a few messages and maybe meet-up once.  After establishing a ne “baseline”, we track each other through Facebook, exchange comments, and move on with our lives.

Let’s look at the close friends.  We would regularly call each other, go out of our way to catch-up over drinks, and generally interact as much as our lives and the distance would allow.

Now, we mostly track each other through Facebook.  We feel we know what is going on in each other’s lives.  The urge/need to reach out over the phone isn’t as pressing.  This seems good because I spend so much more time online, so it helps save time.  Aside from maybe commenting on their statuses more than average, I interact with them online as much as most others on Facebook.

My strong relationships seem to be becoming weaker.  My interactions with my close friends are, on average, more superficial than they where before Facebook.

My friendships seem to be moving towards the mean.

Is this Good?

Let’s quickly sum-up:

  • Lots of new ties professionally.
  • Average strength of new ties, and of previously existing weak ties, is stronger
  • Average strength of old, strong ties, is weaker

The answer really depends on your goals.  In my professional life, Social Networking is making things better as I meet more people and gain new opportunities.  The entire Enterprise 2.0 conference is a direct result of my use of Social Networking tools.  My social activities were also entirely the result of my Social Networking. On the whole good things.

That said, there is nothing like talking to good friends all night about anything and everything.  My professional life exists to support my personal life, so the weakening of my personal ties is actually a concern.

Then there is Dunbar’s Number.  Simply put, this is the number of stable social relationships that a person can maintain.  The number is 150.  So, with more professional relationships, personal ones will invariably be pushed aside.  As bad as it sounds, this is probably a wash given that it is relationship 151 that will be dropped.  If that particular relationship was more important to me, it wouldn’t be the one that gets neglected.

Let’s be fair, there is nothing stopping me from calling people like I used to do.  on the other hand, there is nothing stopping them from calling either. It happens much less on both sides, so it isn’t just me.

Will I give up Facebook? No, it still serves a purpose that was not being met before. I am going to make a more concerted effort to connect the old fashion way with my close friends.

So excuse me while I go call my best man.

13 thoughts on “The Negative Impact of Social Networking on Relationships

  1. Marko Sillanpää says:

    Thanks for writing this. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about myself. But you took an interesting spin relating the professional community to the personal community. It’s something I think a lot of us “see” but aren’t willing to believe.

    I’ve also separated my communities, but personally haven’t adopted Facebook as much. For me the professional community of ECM is global and even in this day and time it’s difficult to communicate in other means and really share ideas. For this reason I see Web 2.0 as a facilitator to relationships in this global community. On the other hand I do not see Facebook as a personal community tool. For me it has been to connect only to those personal relationships that have weaken already, either fallen into the distance by time or location.

    You hit a solid point but I think you use the wrong adjectives. It’s not new and old ties. It’s professional and personal ties. And I do believe that a lot of personal ties get weakened over time by using Web2.0 tools as the key. We all know that’s it’s not hard to get immersed into work. My fear is that personal usage of Web2.0 will only make this easier, as I ignore maintaining personal relationships in a personal nature.

    I don’t want to see Web2.0’s tag line become, “Web 2.0 connecting people, disconnecting friendships.” That said the next time I’m in DC, we’ll have that beer we’ve been talking about.

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    • I think the personal-professional difference you notice are strong-weak/old-new. My old ties are my personal ties, and they are the stronger ones.

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  2. I think this is true enough. I myself have noticed that the amount I go out of my way to call a lot of people has dropped. I even spend less and less time on MSN and the like where I could at least directly address them in real time.

    However, for myself at least, I think it’s more an issue of friends drifting away etc. At least with Facebook, I know that some kind of contact with them isn’t far away. It’s funny, your article has made me rethink how much effort I put into my relationships with people. lol.

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  3. Ro says:

    This is really quite insightful! I’m going to be writing my university dissertation soon which will be all about how we can use the three screen lifestyle (mobile phone, computer, tv) to help us reconnect with real world social interactions.

    I guess Social Networking sites do essentially degrade the quality of relationships, but that’s because we are so immersed in them. What if Social Networking sites were the catalyst in getting us to call someone or meet up with them, as opposed to peering into their lives in a voyeuresque manner? I think that would contribute to much healthier relationships in the long run. Imagine if you could only spend 5 minutes per hour on your favourite personal Social Network. I think it’d give us enough time for us to see what people are up to, and for the deeper curiousity to then kick in just as we’re kicked off of the site for another 55 minutes! Time for a phone call to that someone? I think so :)

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  4. psnnagu says:

    Its a very interesting read. Its always been the feeling i had. The friends that are not active in Facebook or such fell left out so they forcefully engage in SN. I totally agree with Marko Sillanpää that “Web 2.0 connecting people, disconnecting friendships”. Drifting away from friends in this large pool of friends is definitely a concern.

    On the other hand I have always wondered if there are any SN sites that allows one to selectively network with different set of groups one has. More like social networking for multiple groups and at the same time separate them. This might actually help us feel more connected and close to our strong ties and make them feel valued. Differentiate from our other casual relationships. That will be a useful place to be in.

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  5. Shainasufi says:

    I do agree with RO’s comment ” I guess Social Networking sites do essentially degrade the quality of relationships, but that’s because we are so immersed in them”. It is the curiosity level that make us so glued to social networking, it all just reading updates of friends and commenting on them….Practically are we doing anything to stay connected and help our closed ones to be happy…i think that would be a real achievement.

    Virtually staying connected and doing nothing constructive does not make sense.

    We should use such platforms more constructively

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  6. Shainasufi, I agree with you in part, though I don’t really disagree in any significant way. Now that I’ve made that cryptic comments…

    What is needed is a balance. That balance needs to start with yourself, or myself. Use these networks for the minor things and for pictures, but take the time to describe the experiences using more traditional methods like the phone or in person with those people that matter.

    It is a matter of establishing patterns. We have changed the older ones without thinking about it. We now need to adjust for the over-shift that we have done. These online tools are quite useful, but they should supplement our social networks and not be our social networks.

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  7. BTW: Did yoi know of the ‘Dunbar Limit’ which equals to 148 and thus close to the 150 ‘people you know’. That is according to the theory the biological limit of relationships that we can keep actively. You are proof of that …

    Cool!

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