Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The dark and good side of collecting online friends

If (per my last post) people cannot maintain more than 150 relationships, what then is the motivation behind the accumulation of hundreds and thousands of online friends?

There are positive motivations, to be sure, but there are negative ones as well. At its worst, the acculumation of online friends is a narcissistic endeavor in which we seek to display to the world our high social standing and societal status. The authors of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom (see my last post), state that our online friend accumulation is "a social barometer that validates self-esteem, confers staus and measures social capital . . . Today, the prize catch on social networking sites is a 'trophy friend.'" (p. 41-42)
The more friends we have on Facebook or followers on Twitters or readers of our blog, the more we feel confident in our social standing and feeling of self-worth. And if we have a big name person in our social circle, that shows our own high standing. It is similar to the person in real life who brags that he or she has a doctor in his or her social circle.

It is doubtful that most of the time these thoughts are conscious. Rather, they are instinctive. If you can think back to the time you first signed up to Facebook or some other social networking site, the first thing that probably flashed through our minds was, I need to add some friends. If people come along and see that I have no friends, they will think I'm a loser. We will often add a friend not because we really know them, but because their "friendship" will improve our social standing.
These are our less than stellar motivations for collecting online friends.

On the positive side, most online friends can be placed in the "weak ties" category of relationships. Contrary to popular thought, most jobs are not obtained by direct connections, but by friends of friends, or what is often referred to as "weak ties" or one's "extended network." (p. 49). (This is based upon research done by American sociologist Mark Granovetter in his 1973 essay called "The Strength of Weak Ties.") This rolodex of somewhat removed relationships can prove very helpful at times, and probably every person has drawn upon this type of network when seeking a job or looking for help of other sorts. While these are utilitarian relationships, they are at least not substituting a relationship with God for one's self-worth.

Another positive motivation for adding online friends is for problem solving, idea generation, and extended discussion. Books such as The Wisdom of Crowds and others (I'll have a separate post on this subject) show that many breakthrough discoveries come from people outside of a field of experts--someone in a crowd. Social networking sites and the "friends of friends" will often provide help that cannot be found in one's close circle of friends.

Perhaps the best reason to accumulate online friendships is to seek to be as helpful as possible to people in general and to positively influence people for Christ. It is true that the gospel spreads through close relationships, and yet, many times people gain interest in faith or a church by "overhearing" the conversations of others. The more people in one's extended network, the greater the possibility that someone may be reached through these strong and weak ties. Closely related in motivation is the use of the "wisdom of crowds" directly for outreach.

Being human, I am sure that I have had the less than stellar motivations for adding online friends flash through my mind, at the very least subconsciously. In my better moments, however, I hopefully have had postive motivations for this process. as a minister, I want to reach and influence as many people as possible. So, in addition to keeping in contact with my close friends, I want to be active on Facebook to be able to help and influence others. In addition, the social networking site that I've created, The Missional Outreach Network, was created precisely to draw upon the "wisdom of crowds" in pooling resources for outreach and mission.

What do you think of these motivations for online friendships? What do you see as the motivation for yourself and/or others?