Nancy Baym, (University of Kansas) associate professor of communication studies, became interested early on in how the Internet shapes interpersonal communication and of late has focused her research on social networking sites in particular.
Sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have revolutionized interpersonal relationships for the digital age, she said. Within these online communities, users share status updates, self-generated media, journal entries and other interpersonal communication with an ever-growing cadre of online friends. The purpose is to reinforce established friendships and form bonds with new friends.
“They start in the mid-late 1990s based on this idea that Stanley Milgram had that everybody’s connected by six degrees of separation — and the first one was actually called ‘sixdegrees.com,’ ” said Baym. “And they’re based on the premise that you’re more likely to want to get to know people who know people you already know than all-out strangers. So rather than a dating site that just has people putting up profiles and trying to randomly match, what if you could put up profiles of people that had shared friends. Wouldn’t those be more likely to succeed?”
“Different people have different reasons for compulsive Facebook use,” Baym said. “But I think it comes down to the fact that there’s a continuous dribble — there’s always something new — so every time you go something has changed; somebody has updated their status; someone has sent you a request; someone has posted an item. So it’s a continuous link of hanging out in the halls with your friends between classes or hanging around the water cooler at the office.”
Baym recently has completed research on Last.fm, a niche site that connects fans of similar music. She found that online friendships based on common taste in music tended to be more fragile, although people also used the site to maintain closer relationships.
“What I found on Last.fm was that on average these relationships are not very strong,” said the KU researcher.