Is Social Media Really That Social? Thick Conversations in a World of Thin Connections

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The Oscar award winning film, The Social Network might be one of the most ironic stories of our time.  As the movie begins, Mark Zuckerberg, who would go on to found Facebook sits in a bar in deep conversation with his apparent girlfriend. He proceeds to insult her in the conversation, prompting her to walk out in disgust. The friendship is broken. From here, Zuckerberg joins with his best friend to create and launch what we know today as Facebook. Zuckerberg ultimately undercuts his friend’s share holdings, leaving him with a small fraction of what he thought he would receive.

The movie unfolds in a massive lawsuit involving two brothers who alleged Zuckerberg stole the Facebook idea from them. Zuckerberg is also sued by his former best friend. As the movie ends, we see the young billionaire sitting alone in front of a computer screen beholding his creation. He invites his former girlfriend to be his friend on Facebook. He then repeatedly hits the button refreshing the screen over and over and over again, waiting for an acceptance he will never receive. The man responsible for connecting more people together in so-called friendships than anyone in history sits alone in isolation, virtually friendless.

One can hardly make the case that social media doesn’t contribute to authentic relationships. Statistics show that one in eight couples who married last year met online. Still, many scoff at the superficial nature of online communities. A person with 1000 friends on Facebook can manage to remain quite isolated from real relationship.

How can this be? The platforms of social media are built around what sociologists, Mark Granovetter, called “weak ties.” In a New Yorker Magazine essay, Malcolm Gladwell comments on Granovetter’s research. “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”

M.I.T. professor, Sherry Turkle, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece notes,

In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project mitigates in the other direction, showing that facebook users have on average “9% more close, core ties in their overall social network compared with other internet users.” (My question is what would the comparison be like with “non internet users,” if there is such a thing anymore.) The study also revealed these fascinating findings:

Facebook users tend to get more emotional support, companionship and help in times of need.

Facebook  users tend to only friend others users with whom they have some level of real life relationship; with people they have met in person.

The average Facebook user has never met only 7% of their Facebook friends.

Does our online presence and social media activity lend itself to the development and nurturing of real relationships or does it tend more toward acquaintance management. It’s not that weak ties are bad, but one can have a thousand of them and still live in isolation from others.

Pressing a step beyond the weak and strong ties issue, let’s look at the connections to conversations ratio. There is a growing inverse relationship between the number of connections we manage and the number of real conversations we participate in. Again, Sherry Turkle captures the dilemma.

Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, “I am thinking about you.” Or even for saying, “I love you.” But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.

I’m beginning to think of this in the terms of thin connections vs. thick conversations. Our capacity for thin connections seems somewhat elastic; however we only have room for a finite number of thick conversations. Each of us has limited relational bandwidth. Perhaps the best question to ask is how are we using that bandwidth. Is it consumed by thin connections or are we carving out space for thick conversations?  Are our thin connections supplementing our thick conversations or are they supplanting them? Help me think this through in the comments below? What difference should this make to followers of Jesus? What impact might this have on incarnational ministry?

[[It’s another post, but I wonder how our relational practices are impacting our relationship with God. Thin connections or thick conversations?]]

J.D. Walt is the Sower-in-Chief for Seedbed. He blogs at jdwalt.com and tweets @jdwalt. See also episode 1 and episode 2 from this series of posts on social wisdom for social media.

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