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Social Support and Information-Sharing on Facebook by Adult Users
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Social Support and Information-Sharing on Facebook by Adult Users

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These slides are from a presentation at the National Communication Association annual conference on November 16, 2010 in San Francisco. The presentation summarizes findings from a qualitative study of …

These slides are from a presentation at the National Communication Association annual conference on November 16, 2010 in San Francisco. The presentation summarizes findings from a qualitative study of adult Facebook users and focuses on two key constructs of social capital: social support and information-seeking.

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  •  
    That said, we believe the relationship between Facebook use and social capital is very complicated and needs to take into account a variety of other factors, some of which may be even more prominent for adults. We see this relationship as a balancing of tensions, such that in order to accrue these benefits, users must relinquish some degree of control. For example, we know from two studies that neither passive consumption nor disclosures alone predict social capital. Instead, users must be more actively engaged through directed communication and reciprocal postings. The idea of context collapse is also relevant here: adults are likely to maintain many diverse audiences of friends, ranging from high school and college friends, to coworkers and friends across their many stages of life. They may be less likely to post content that is only appropriate for some of those audiences. Finally, adults typically have heightened concerns regarding the privacy of their content, which may inhibit their sharing of content.
     
  • To address these research questions, we chose a qualitative approach and used Facebook ads and snowball sampling to recruit adult Facebook users ages 25 to 55 to participate in in-depth phone interviews. Our final sample includes 18 adults. Interviews were transcribed and imported into Atlas.ti, a qualitative content analysis program and data were analyzed in an iterative process, whereby data from each of the participants were used to refine theoretical categories as they emerged. Finally, data matrices were created to summarize responses related to the research questions.
  • To move onto our findings, our first RQ focuses on the bonding social capital construct of social support. Two interrelated themes emerged, focusing on the convenience of using Facebook versus other channels when requesting or providing support, and Facebook’s ability to lower barriers to interaction. In other words, people who may have never contacted a Facebook friend through another channel could easily post a supportive message on Facebook. For example, one of our participants noted how quick messages on Facebook—regardless of who they came from—made her feel better when she was having a bad day. She said [quote].
     
    On the flip side, the ease with which messages could be posted led some participants to suggest that using Facebook to provide support is less authentic than more traditionally provided support. Here’s an example [quote].
     
    Another risk participants identified relates to privacy concerns. Many forms of social support are derived from intimate disclosures, such as a serious illness; therefore, individuals may be unwilling to make such disclosures in a public or semi-public forum. By not making the disclosure, however, they cannot receive support.
  • To move onto our findings, our first RQ focuses on the bonding social capital construct of social support. Two interrelated themes emerged, focusing on the convenience of using Facebook versus other channels when requesting or providing support, and Facebook’s ability to lower barriers to interaction. In other words, people who may have never contacted a Facebook friend through another channel could easily post a supportive message on Facebook. For example, one of our participants noted how quick messages on Facebook—regardless of who they came from—made her feel better when she was having a bad day. She said [quote].
     
    On the flip side, the ease with which messages could be posted led some participants to suggest that using Facebook to provide support is less authentic than more traditionally provided support. Here’s an example [quote].
     
    Another risk participants identified relates to privacy concerns. Many forms of social support are derived from intimate disclosures, such as a serious illness; therefore, individuals may be unwilling to make such disclosures in a public or semi-public forum. By not making the disclosure, however, they cannot receive support.
  •  Our second RQ focused on bridging social capital. The classic interpretation of bridging social capital goes back to Mark Granovetter’s seminal piece, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” which posited that weak ties are more likely to provide access to non-redundant information, such as information about a new job. We found numerous examples supporting this proposition, and participants recognized the benefits associated with having a diverse network of friends. For example, one participant talking about posting questions to Facebook said [quote].
     
    Another benefit that is more unique to Facebook is derived from the fact that connections on the site generally constitute pre-existing relationships. When seeking information online, individuals have a number of options, including online searches through sites such as Google. However, while Google may provide a larger number of answers to a question, individuals may be more likely to trust responses provided by a network member than a stranger in an online forum.
     
    Switching to potential risks related to bridging social capital on Facebook, participants with very dense networks noted they reaped fewer bridging benefits. For example, one participant, who was a nurse, said [quote].
    Having a dense network could be a reflection of one’s offline network, but it could also be the result of privacy concerns. If a person only friends “actual” friends, they will most likely have less access to non-redundant information. On a related note, having a wide variety of audiences within one’s friend list could also negatively impact bridging social capital if the individual does not want to post content that one or more audiences cannot see. For example, one of our participants said that he did not post questions to Facebook because those questions would most likely be about teaching and he had students as friends on the site, who he would not want to see the posts.
  •  Our second RQ focused on bridging social capital. The classic interpretation of bridging social capital goes back to Mark Granovetter’s seminal piece, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” which posited that weak ties are more likely to provide access to non-redundant information, such as information about a new job. We found numerous examples supporting this proposition, and participants recognized the benefits associated with having a diverse network of friends. For example, one participant talking about posting questions to Facebook said [quote].
     
    Another benefit that is more unique to Facebook is derived from the fact that connections on the site generally constitute pre-existing relationships. When seeking information online, individuals have a number of options, including online searches through sites such as Google. However, while Google may provide a larger number of answers to a question, individuals may be more likely to trust responses provided by a network member than a stranger in an online forum.
     
    Switching to potential risks related to bridging social capital on Facebook, participants with very dense networks noted they reaped fewer bridging benefits. For example, one participant, who was a nurse, said [quote].
    Having a dense network could be a reflection of one’s offline network, but it could also be the result of privacy concerns. If a person only friends “actual” friends, they will most likely have less access to non-redundant information. On a related note, having a wide variety of audiences within one’s friend list could also negatively impact bridging social capital if the individual does not want to post content that one or more audiences cannot see. For example, one of our participants said that he did not post questions to Facebook because those questions would most likely be about teaching and he had students as friends on the site, who he would not want to see the posts.
  • So what does this all mean? Here are some points to consider. First, when looking at bonding social capital, tie strength appears to be functioning differently than traditionally conceived. Facebook’s lowered barriers to interaction enables weak ties to offer support, but some people may see the low transaction costs associated with posting these messages as evidence of inauthenticity. An interesting concept to consider here is media multiplexity, which argues that closer ties employ a greater quantity of communication channels. Therefore, close friends may choose to ignore Facebook completely and use richer channels to provide support.
     
    On a related note, the interaction between network characteristics and social capital is worth additional consideration. Tie strength is one important characteristic; as noted in the findings, dense networks lower the ability to accrue bridging outcomes. However, dense networks may be more likely to engage in disclosures because there is a high degree of trust between network members. A related characteristic is network size; a larger network means that more people will see a request and potentially provide support or information, but it also means that more people—and more audiences—will be able to view any content.
     
    Finally, privacy concerns were raised throughout all the interviews, and these concerns have the potential to severely limit social capital benefits. One participant noted that she knew she did not get as much out of using Facebook as her friends, but she was unwilling to relinquish control by posting information on the site.
  • In conclusion, this study is important because it provides a deeper understanding about the mechanisms through which individuals accrue social capital on SNSs. Importantly, it considers adult users, who constitute an increasingly larger proportion of SNS members and who may experience different uses and concerns than college students. As this research was qualitative, future studies should empirically test our findings and continue to examine non-student populations to further enhance our understanding of SNSs’ role in relationship maintenance and social capital.
  • Transcript

    • 1. “There's a Network Out There You Might as Well Tap”: Social Support and Information- Sharing on Facebook by Adult Users Jessica Vitak and Nicole Ellison Michigan State University November 16, 2010
    • 2. SNS Research Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 We know a lot about college students’ use of SNSs and other variables of interest... • Facebook use and social capital (Ellison et al., 2007) • Self-presentation on Facebook (Zhao et al., 2008) • # of friends and social attraction (Tong et al., 2008) • Privacy disconnect (Acquisti & Gross, 2006) …but not a lot about adults and SNSs. Sept. 2005 May 2008 Nov. 2008 Dec. 2009 May 2010 Ages 30-49 12% 25% 36% 58% 61% Ages 50-64 7% 11% 16% 36% 47% Age 65+ 5% 7% 4% 22% 26% All Internet-using adults age 18+ 8% 35% 47% Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project
    • 3. Social capital & SNSs Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Social capital: benefits individuals accrue from members of their social network (Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2000). Putnam (2000) distinguishes between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Research by Ellison and colleagues has looked at a variety of predictors related to forms of social capital: • Facebook Intensity (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007) • Changes over time (Steinfield, Ellison, & Lampe, 2008) • Connection strategies (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2010) • Facebook Friends vs. actual friends (Ellison et al., 2010) • Disclosures & reciprocity (Vitak, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2011)
    • 4. Managing Tensions: Benefits vs. Risks Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 In order to accrue social capital, the individual must relinquish something (e.g., privacy, information).  Passive consumption is not enough (Burke et al., 2010).  Disclosures may not be enough either (Vitak et al., 2011).  Audience considerations (boyd, 2008)  Privacy concerns (e.g., Dwyer, Hiltz, &Passerini, 2007)
    • 5. Present study Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 RQ1: What do Facebook users perceive to be benefits and risks of using the site to exchange social support? RQ2: What do Facebook users perceive to be benefits and risks of using the site to exchange information?
    • 6. Methodology Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 18 semi-structured, in-depth phone interviews with adult Facebook users (61% female) ages 25-55 (M = 44). Questions focused on various uses of Facebook’s features for self-presentation, relationship maintenance, and interaction. Used Atlas.ti to code and analyze interviews, employing an iterative process. Created data matrices to questions related to bonding and bridging social capital.
    • 7. Findings: Emotional Support Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Benefits: • Convenience is key • Lowered barriers to interaction “It actually does make you feel better because you know somebody at least cares enough to respond. And the variety of responses, they didn't come just from friends and family, they came from political people and people that have genuine cares and concerns, and so it's nice.”
    • 8. Findings: Emotional Support Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Risks: • “Cheap” medium = inauthentic support • Public nature of content “I think [posting a message to elicit emotional support] on a public forum has this sense of ‘I'm trying to elicit some sympathy or some empathy here,’ and so it might feel a little less sincere if I got the
    • 9. Findings: Information-Seeking Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Benefits: Can access a diverse set of people when looking for answers to both simple and more complex questions. Pre-existing relationship  greater trust in information. “Surely somebody out of the 350 people would have an answer to something I needed, or know where to direct me to find it.”
    • 10. Findings: Information-Seeking Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 “most of my [Facebook] friends are nurses, so I can get nursing advice from them whereas if I have a question about a car or something, most of my Facebook friends are Risks: More homogeneous networks may decrease opportunities for accessing novel information. Multiple audiences may constrain disclosures.
    • 11. Discussion Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Relationship between tie strength/type of relationship and use of Facebook for emotional support.  See media multiplexity (Haythornthwaite 2005). Privacy concerns and low self-efficacy may decrease opportunities for accruing social capital. Interaction between network characteristics and social capital outcomes.  Tie strength and network size
    • 12. Conclusions Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Present study provides a deeper understanding of the mechanisms through which adult Facebook users accrue social capital. Important to consider how network structure and individual attitudes toward social media impact their experiences. Future research should consider methods through which to quantitatively examine the present findings.
    • 13. Thanks! Jessica Vitak & Nicole Ellison | National Communication Association | November 16, 2010 Jessica Vitak Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, & Media Michigan State University vitakjes@msu.edu Nicole Ellison Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, & Media Michigan State University nellison@msu.edu

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