November 12, 2019 at 12:30pm
Dr. Carrie Trimble, associate professor of marketing

Does Social Media Really Connect People?

Dr. Carrie Trimble

Do Facebook Friends Count as Real Friends?

Facebook friends are as real as you make them. Regardless of how you’ve met someone — online or in person — connections require time and effort. Social media or group chats may seem like a difficult place to form authentic friendships, but Gen Xers and baby boomers should remember that the term “friend” may be used loosely. We have our closest friends, our work friends, our church friends, our gym friends and the people we only know as parents from school or the dog park. In casual conversations, we’ll reference the woman we only know as “Buster the pit bull’s mom” as a friend. It’s easier that way; it feels less clinical. We recognize the difference between people we really know and those we’re simply friendly with, even if we tend to call both groups “friends.”

Quality time and intimate, personal disclosures often differentiate your closest friends from your dog park pals. Physical proximity, though, doesn’t determine the strength or authenticity of a social connection, especially in adulthood. Instead, strong relationships form through time spent together, emotionally intense exchanges, mutual confidences and reciprocal support. (At least that’s how sociologists have determined the strength of interpersonal ties since the 1970s, when Mark Granovetter published “The Strength of Weak Ties.”)

We can spend time together and help each other without inhabiting the same physical space. Online relationships can include hours of sharing deeply personal information and can provide advice, financial support and character references from great distances. We may depend on connections made online if we’re geographically isolated or if we’re really shy. Online friendships allow us to “meet” people with a variety of lived experiences and may help us open up about sensitive topics.

Instead of classifying interpersonal connections as real or fake, we should focus on the strength of our ties and understand that we benefit from weak ties as well as strong ones. We often rely on weak social ties, like your friend from the dog park, for the spread of information. Our strong ties — our closest friends and family members — share a large number of connections with us. That means we often need to go outside of these strong ties to discover new information. Similarly, many of us would happily pass along a resume from a church friend we only see once a week. In fact, most job referrals come from people we see less than once a week.  

While we need both strong and weak social ties, businesses need to acknowledge that different generations of employees may be better at developing one type of tie over the other. That means the organization needs to work on bridging the two by respecting the value of both; this also requires setting aside some assumptions about what is “normal.”  Casual social media connections (weak ties) can generate sales leads, but the trust of a strong tie is most likely necessary to close the deal. Both the lead and close are real and valuable. Both are crucial to the success of the organization.

Dr. Carrie Trimble, associate professor of marketing for the Tabor School of Business, is fascinated by digital media and media technologies. A social media junkie, she earned a master’s degree in communication from the University of Illinois at Springfield and a doctorate in mass media from Michigan State University. When not teaching classes in digital media marketing, consumer behavior or integrated marketing communications, you might find this self-proclaimed “Disney nerd” taking her students on a Performance Learning immersion course to Main Street, U.S.A.