Relationships 2.0: Social media – taking the distance out of long distance relationships

On: October 2, 2011
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About Ave Tampere
Did my undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Westminster, now exploring the depths of new media in Amsterdam. Originally from Estonia, but also lived in Finland (and UK). Have worked in music press and PR and I've also done a bit of radio work for the Estonian National Broadcast. I like music, cats, skydiving, photography, books, good food, sunshine and anything exciting. I once wanted to make the world a better place and I still haven't given up on that one.

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Social media has drastically changed the way we go about our daily business – this has been firmly established by now. Media scholars are exploiting (in a good way) all the possibilities and data the exciting platforms provide for research to bring us a clearer picture of our society and the world. But somewhere in that system are also real people with real lives and relationships, which are also being integrated into this new social space. The thought of real life being stirred into social media, which in essence is virtual, sounds a bit paradoxic. However, this is what we do now – have and maintain relationships through social media.

Facebook, one of the most popular social networking platforms, which has also been measured, analysed and dissected by various researchers, has brought together hundreds of old friends, I would venture to guess. Reconnecting with the old, connecting very swiftly with the new, maintaining the current friends, acquaintances, colleagues etc. – sounds like a promising feature. There are researchers who believe that interaction through social media has a negative effect on our lives in the long run. Andrew Keen is one of the key criticisers of the web 2.0 in general, whereas Nicholas Carr takes a more worried stance on the effect of the Internet on us, but Elias Aboujaoude, MD has written a lengthy book on the dangers of being online, in which he touches upon the topic of relationships a lot, from an internet dating point of view. The risks and criticisms, even though often discussed in the extremes, are definitely valid, but the same social media can also act in a positive way in our real human relationships. However, the critical thoughts on social media provide a good starting point for critically scrutinising the long distance 2.0.  So let’s put the society – the people – back into social media.

After years of being an international student and making friends all over the world, social media tools are the easiest and cheapest way for someone like myself to keep in touch with them. The world turns into this small global village, because I can chat to my friends on the other side of the world in real time and without the social media tools that would not be possible in any other way than phoning. This goes also applies for professional communication in our multi-national corporations and personal/romantic connections. The world is cosmopolitan and our relationships of all sorts are becoming increasingly more global. Soshable, a social media blog, also argues that social media helps to “keep our long-distance relationships hot”.

What interests me in our relationships mediated by social media, is the result, the end product and meaning of these communications. Facebook provides a vast amount of data, of which the ‘relationship status’ and ‘current location’ are just a few examples. This could be used for retrieving a large sample of people for studying the ‘long-distance internet relationship’ phenomenon. However, despite social media being very deeply intertwined in the long-distance internet relationships, this is still a matter that should be investigated from a more sociological angle. We could quantify the data retrieved in terms of numbers and mileage, but real insight into a topic like this can only be sought through conducting interviews or doing a survey.

A serious issue that arises, possibly with doing research on any social media platform (unless the participants in the study have volunteered) is obviously the much-discussed privacy. Jernigan & Mistree who conducted a study on sexual orientation on Facebook, also acknowledge the inherent problem with privacy and the accessibility of very private and personal data for pretty much anyone who gets their hands on a tool for retrieving data from Facebook.

The privacy controls of Facebook, a multi–billion dollar corporation, offer anemic protection against such an analysis: our model built from relatively simple network data was mostly unimpeded by Facebook’s privacy efforts. Future extensions of this work need not be limited to Facebook and could be applied to telephone call records or even e–mail transactions, as those communications rely on social connections. Who is to say that companies are not already doing the type of network analysis presented here behind closed doors? (Jernigan & Mistree, 2009)

While the moral code of retrieving Facebook data (without the company’s permission, by the way) is ambiguous, there is still a vast amount of data available for extensive social research. Nevertheless, even the more unaware (of how little privacy they have) Facebook users have made a conscious choice to join the social network. So, if the information is already out there and it can be retrieved without causing any harm or disturbance and not for someone’s profit, the ethical and moral ambiguity can be left aside for research purposes. (Disclaimer: I am aware of the controversy of this statement)

My hypothesis would be that despite the apparent benefit of social media in long-distance relationship, the reality isn’t so obviously clear cut. On one side we have the positive aspects of social media, as also outlined earlier – keeping in touch with long lost friends and people who live far away, we’re more sociable (even though on a virtual platform), we feel more connected (the “long tail” of the internet lets us buddy up with people who share the same odd interest as us), we could overcome social awkwardness, find a companion, our networks are big and global … But there is also the dark side – starting from internet addiction and complete loss of privacy (which happens quasi-willingly) and finishing with sexual promiscuity stemming from the internet. If using the internet has an effect on our simplest social interaction, and some argue on our psychology and identity, then it must have an effect on the relationships that are being “kept alive” through social media means.

It seems that when our relationships ‘go online’ with the best intentions, there are a lot more aspects to bear in mind. People get fired for Facebook statuses nowadays, photos and being ‘checked in’ at a place can create problems (e.g. someone is being ‘stalked’ online and the conclusions drawn from the information available on social networking sites can be ambiguous and for example create jealousy). Whereas social networking sites make our girl- or boyfriend an ocean away almost be with us through our computer screens, does that really substitute the human contact and real relationships? Sure, keeping in touch is easier, but how valuable is the virtual communication compared to physical presence? To what extent and how long will virtual suffice? What kind of problems arise?

Researchers have looked into the questions of identity and privacy online and that could be a starting point for studying long-distance relationships over the internet. The methodology and technical aspects proposed here are painfully vague at this point, but I believe with a bit of tech-wit and a lot of time, a very interesting sociological research could be conducted. There is also a problem with how many people actually reveal their relationship status and location (truthfully), but as most of the data collection will be done through qualitative means, this error could be reduced significantly. The scope of an investigation like this is vast, but embracing other internet tools such as online surveys and interviews over Skype to name a few, it could be managed easier. Whether in reality it is do-able, I don’t know. I know I don’t have the technological savviness for retrieving the data for the starting point of a study like this, but I refuse to believe it’s impossible. Nothing is impossible nowadays – and this statement stretches truly far, exactly because of the much discussed, criticised and praised social media.

Source: Rounds.

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