by: Nancy Baym
It took way too long, but an article I wrote with several colleagues has just been published in the new issue of New Media & Society. This is a followup to the piece I published there in 2004 with Zhang and Lin (who are co-authors on this new one, along with Andrew Ledbetter and Adrianne Kunkel).
In the time between its acceptance and publication quite a lot of new work has come along that I would have cited were I writing it today, but it still fits nicely into the growing body of work that shows that using the internet to socialize is not inherently bad (or good) for personal relationships.
What we did was to survey about 500 students. I asked them to recall the most recent voluntary social interaction they’d had and (among other things), to assess the quality of that relationship and also to estimate what percentage of their total interaction with this person took place via face-to-face communication, via phone, and via internet.
In contrast to some other studies looking at internet’s impact on relationships, we controlled for several other factors known to affect relational quality (gender, relationship type — like acquaintance vs family etc, same vs cross sex relationship, etc.). This allowed us to see clearly how much impact on relational quality media use has.
We found that relationship type affected which media were used: our respondents (mostly students at a residential university) were less likely to communicate face-to-face with family and more likely to use the phone with them. Other than that, we didn’t find differences in media use amongst friends, family, romantic partners and acquaintances.
And on the big question: do people who use the internet for more of their communication report lower relational quality? NO. As we say in the article “participants’ estimated proportion of face-to-face, phone and internet communication with their partners did not affect relational quality.”
Another nail in the internet-is-relationally-inferior coffin.
To be clear, I do not believe that the internet is adequate as a SOLE means of maintaining meaningful relationships over the long haul. In fact, research (including the last.fm friends data I’m working with now) suggests that what’s important in developing and maintaining close relationships is using more media to communicate, regardless of which specific media one combines. Using more internet vs more phone or more face-to-face conversation to maintain the relationship does not seem to do any relational harm. What’s more, it’s not just that more internet wasn’t bad, it’s that more face-to-face was not good. Media choice just didn’t matter. Another nail in the coffin of face-to-face-communication-is-unconditionally-best coffin?
Baym, N.K., Zhang, Y.B., Lin, M.-C., Kunkel, A., Lin, M. & Ledbetter, A. (2007). Relational Quality and Media Use. New Media & Society, 9(5).