Professor Kevin Lewis | Exploring the Differences between Digital and Face-to-Face Social Networks
About this episode
Digital communication technologies, such as email, social media and messaging apps, radically changed how humans interact with each other. However, most research on how digital networks emerge and evolve is based on the flawed assumption that online and offline social networks operate very similarly. Professor Kevin Lewis at the University of California, San Diego, recently published a paper that challenges this assumption, by exploring the differences in how online and offline social networks are established and develop over time. Read More
Most available data related to online social networks offers insight about users’ behaviour, rather than the many factors influencing this behaviour. In his paper, Lewis examines some of these factors and highlights key differences between online and face-to-face interactions.
He points out that digital communication technologies allow people to communicate from afar, either synchronously or asynchronously, and without these interactions necessarily being visible to others. They also allow people to communicate anonymously or under a false name.
Digital communication technologies open new opportunities for meeting people with similar interests or desirable traits, removing the need to share common friends or physical spaces. Users have the choice to selectively engage in conversations that interest them, and have the opportunity to ‘broadcast’ their lives to a large number of potential recipients through status updates, stories, live streams or tweets.
Lewis highlights that because digital exchanges can involve lengthier and more flexible periods of delay compared to face-to-face conversations, they might involve mental processes that are more deliberate and conscious. Moreover, online connections can be influenced by algorithms and interfaces, such as through the suggestion of new friends or limited ways to interact.
While people can learn facts that others share on personal profiles, such as their interests or what city they live in, they cannot learn other socially crucial information, such as the experience of a person’s physical presence and the potential chemistry between them. Of course, this also opens opportunities for varying degrees of deceit.
According to Lewis, the internet is prompting us to re-think how we approach different moments in the interaction process, introducing dimensions that are less applicable face-to-face. For example, online users can browse through a staggering number of profiles at length and choose who to interact with. They can also interact with people without the prospect of ever meeting them, and can ignore messages from people they do not wish to connect with.
Online networks can also be more complex than offline networks, as they include extensions of day-to-day interactions with people we know, initial introductions with people we will meet at a later stage, and meaningful relationships with people we will never meet in person.
Finally, Lewis emphasises the need to explore how the differences between online and offline social networks can influence relationships, the reach and structure of resulting social networks, and other crucial outcomes, such as people’s wellbeing, social skills, attention span, experiences of isolation, and creativity.
His work lays a foundation for new network studies, offering guidelines for the further exploration of both digital and in-person social ties.
Original Article Reference
Summary of the paper, ‘Digital networks: Elements of a theoretical framework,’ in Social Networks, doi.org/10.1016/j.socnet.2021.12.002
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