Have a computer, Internet connection, and no Facebook profile? Now you're the weirdo outcast. In a new study done by the Pew Research Center, collections of data from thousands of participants showed that people who use social networking services are now not only likely to have larger networks than those who don't, but also have more close friends. The authors of the study don't cite technology as the cause of our newfound friendliness, but those inclined toward social connections are now more likely to be online and networking than not.
For the study, Pew surveyed 2,255 American adults in October and November of 2010, and found that of 1,787 Internet users, 975 of them, or 47 percent of the total, use a social networking service such as Facebook (92 percent), LinkedIn (18 percent), Twitter (13 percent), or MySpace (29 percent). Pew followed up with a barrage of questions to detail how people used the services, and how their use correlated with the personal choices and aspects of their social lives.
In comparing the new study to one conducted in 2008, Pew found that almost twice as many people are using social networks as before. But the 2008 survey also found that there had been a decline in the size and diversity of people's close relationships as a whole, not necessarily related to Internet use.
According to the new survey, close relationships have bounced back, with American people reporting an average of just over two (2.16) close friends, an increase over 2008's 1.93 close friend average. But Internet users lead the increase, averaging 2.26 close confidants to offline people's 1.75. Those who use social networks have 2.45 close friends, and the data also showed that today's average social networking site user is half as likely to report having no close confidants as non-Internet users.
But why have close friends when you can have an army of acquaintances? To compare the size of social networks between Internet and non-Internet users (that is friends on- and offline), researchers used a technique called the "scale-up method." In the scale-up method, researchers take the number of people a person knows from a given subpopulation—say, people named Walter—and compare it to the number of Walters in America as a whole to determine your network size.
For example, if one percent of America is named Walter, then the theory goes that one percent of your network should be named Walter as well. If you know one Walter, your network size will be about 100 people.
Using this method, researchers found that the average non-Internet-using American has 506 social ties, while those who embrace the Internet have 669 social ties. Mobile phone users average 664 ties, and those who access the Internet from a smartphone or tablet computer have 717 social ties.
In breaking the demographics down to individual social networks, the authors began to suspect that certain platforms self-select for people who tend to have larger networks. Facebook users average 648 ties, while users of LinkedIn average 786 ties, and Twitter users 838 ties. So Twitter users win, we guess. Sorry, MySpace (694 ties).
Keeping with the 47 percent of people using social networks, the authors found that the average user is connected to less than half of their social ties on their network of choice. The average Facebook user has 229 Facebook friends.
On scales of social support, Internet users won out over offline people. On a scale of 100, Internet users averaged scores 3 points higher in total social support, while heavy Facebook users averaged scores of 5 points higher.
The survey was also filled with gems regarding Facebook use. For instance, 11 percent of Facebook users have more Facebook friends than their estimated social network size, and on average, 7 percent of Facebook friends are people who the subject has never met before. The study also found that Facebook users are 43 percent more likely than the average Internet user and three times more likely than the non-Internet user to say that "most people can be trusted" (older users may be more to blame for that statistic).
A full 22 percent of Facebook friends are people a subject knows from high school, on average, while extended family are 12 percent. Contacts met in college average 9 percent of a Facebook user's friend population, though college's poor showing against high school may be attributable to the fact that, even today, not everyone goes to college.
In more negative data slices, the survey further points to the statistical likelihood of MySpace's death. The data showed that the vast majority of respondents (76 percent) have had a Myspace account for over two years, and only 3 percent had made a new account within the last six months. Despite the site's legacy, 62 percent of MySpace users check the service less often than a few weeks or never. By comparison, 24 percent of Twitter users had signed up in the last six months, and 52 percent of Facebook users check it at least once a day.
While the study established no causality, we're inclined to say the increase in the sociality of social network users may be a result of more social individuals adopting them more slowly, since they feel they need them the least. On the same note, migration to the Internet of people over the age of 35 was reflected in this study and likely contributed, as older people are usually more well-connected. Either way, it's about time the world shifted away from the perception of online spaces being a refuge for loners and outcasts. Get ready, Internet: the social butterflies are coming.