Going social – the nature of online relationships

So why does social networking sites (SNSs) become so such a technological breakthrough with unprecedented popularity around the word these days?The question has struck me deeply since my first day in NUS and like any of my CNM fellows, I found a great deal of answers for this phenomenon which are listed in many academic papers, news or even casual blog posts. From my very own point of view, the interesting part of all lies within its ability to blur the lines between online and offline world at the most unconscious level, thus, coming with this trend is the dynamics of constantly changing relationships. This post is merely subjective observation revolving around my friends’ interactions as well as my own ones.

The ironies of being intimately online and distantly offline

Many of SNS users may not have realized it but for me it has become somehow undeniable that we are maybe not considered “friends” in real life but definitely we are “friends” on Facebook. Years ago, I was pretty curious about how close my girlfriend to this particular guy. As a silent observer, I often saw two of them commenting and liking each other post on Facebook in ways that can be seen as “close.” The fact that she was quite close to me and I knew for sure that she didn’t have good impressions about him motivated to ask, her answer surprised me. Beside Facebook activities, they two had nothing to do with each other. Similar stories for many other friends who I knew well enough to ask. They all gave me more or less the same replies.

I wouldn’t say that all of online relationships hold this types of patterns, I myself have a number of friends that I truly believe in their genuine intention when interacting with me over SNSs. But I just started to realize the hard truth of relationships on Facebook as well as many other SNSs. At first, I thought it gave me false perceptions of closeness when it comes to online and offline relationships. In academic terms, it is said that these types of communications lack the “social cues” played as a compass for you to understand and predict the behaviors of the speakers, which I guess, may lead to inaccurate assessments into the depth of the relationships. I believe these explanation can still be applied to a large majority of online interactions whereby all the hidden emotions and judgement can be covered perfectly by normalizing, amplifying or downplaying the conversations as per the users’ preferences.

Yet, whether it is still the case?

The changing nature of relationships

When Facebook was first introduced, it exploited the term ” friend” as a representative node in your networks of connections, unlike Twitter which used “followers” and LinkedIn with “connections”. The word “friend” in the first place connote a deeper nature of any relationships, it doesn’t simply mean an acquaintance or some random people who are interested in particular topics. Thus, I would assume that Facebook aims to develop completely different experience for those whose purpose is to bring their offline friends online or even put aside the offline elements, “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. Thus, online friendship isn’t necessarily being attached with physically social interactions, which inevitably shapes a whole new meaning for “friendship” in general.

People’s subconscious acceptance of absence from offline world is the core of newly-created definition for “friendship, followership, connections.”  Users can freely expand their networks to those beyond their immediate locations or those without any mutual interests. And with the advanced algorithms from brightest minds, users can easily track their level of connectedness, a social map that helps them to visualize who they are in the complicated, overlapping and interconnected networks of connections. Overtime, the needs for physical meet-ups with be replaced by perhaps desire for expansion and possibly popularity.

Back to my stories that I have mentioned in the beginning, now I believe it is me to hold so tightly onto my beliefs in deep and trusted connections without the essential realization needed to understand the underlying complexion of online interactions. With the new platforms, chances for networking are being widened exponentially without doubts but the more relevant question now is how. As the expectations are redirected into a different path, the question of why people connected has been somehow altered to how the connections are different and which opportunities it can bring about.


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