If there's one thing at which the amorphous group of sites dubiously dubbed "social networks" are good at, it's at fomenting rampant anxiety about the state of human interaction.
Is Twitter ruining your attention span? Is Facebook turning you into a wan, sunlight-deprived, socially stunted creeper? Does sending LinkedIn invites to everyone in your e-mail contact list make you appear a status-seeking, resume-padding social-climber?
There's no shortage of research out there attempting to answer these apparently burning questions: The search for the meaning of Facebook, the Universe and Everything has become an all-consuming academic career path.
The latest study of this kind comes from researchers at the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, which surveyed 2,255 Americans last fall, quizzing them on who they know, how they know them and how they interact.
Their verdict? Keep calm, carry on sharing: Social networks don't really make you a reclusive sociopath. On the contrary, these researchers argue, they makes your social life richer.
Lead author Keith Hampton points to a host of user characteristics you could probably guess, if you weren't so busy clicking "Like" on photos of people you haven't seen in years. Here's some of what the Pew study found:
Facebook users are maturing
There are more social-networkers out there than you think, and they're older than you think. Sites that started out giving undergrad punks a place to connect and check each other out are now just as likely to display baby pictures, details for Uncle Bob's 60th and status updates that make no mention of parties and hot babes.
Since 2008, the number of Americans who say they frequent social networking sites has grown significantly - from 26 per cent of those surveyed three years ago to 47 per cent in 2010 - and 79 per cent of people who said they use the Internet.
At the same time, the average Facebook addict is aging: More than half of social network users are older than 35; the average age is 38, and 36 per cent are over 50.
Facebook users are more trusting
Every few months, Facebook goes and changes something. Maybe they introduce a "Like" button; maybe they start scraping your data for advertising bots; maybe they default your settings to "Public to everybody at my place of work," start selling your information to sketchy third parties and create facial-recognition software that automatically tags anything resembling your face. And then sends those photos to your boss and parole officer.
Every time this happens, it sparks a miniature online tempest: Facebook users and privacy commissioners voice their horror and call on Mark Zuckerberg to repent his privacy-violating ways and change things back to the way they were before, dammit.
And every time, the hoodied, unrepentant Mr. Zuckerberg calmly explains that, actually, Facebook users don't mind being treated like exhibitionist fish swimming around in a data-mining fishbowl. In fact, they kind of like it.
Well, turns out Mr. Zuckerberg may be right: While Internet users are more trusting than the average American (46 per cent agree that "most people can be trusted" compared to 27 per cent of non-Internet users), Facebook users are even more likely to assume you wouldn't dream of stealing their wallets, or hacking their profiles and using them to proliferate malware and lewd jokes: They're 43 per cent more likely than other Internet users, and three times more likely than non-Internet users to agree that "most people can be trusted."
"One of the big concerns is that people share too much and there are ways in which these disclosures come back and hurt them," says Pew Centre director Lee Rainie. "But it's clear the heaviest users of Facebook are getting network benefits: They are building trust."
Or maybe they're just really, really gullible. And Facebook is an online version of the Darwin awards.
Facebook users tell more people more about themselves
The average American surveyed has 2.16 confidants - people in whom they confide the most personal and private information. The average Internet user has 2.27 of these close friends.
And Facebook users have an average of 9 per cent more than the average Internet users. What's more, they said an increasing number of their "closest ties" are also people they count as friends on Facebook.
Researchers point to this as proof that Facebook helps strengthen personal bonds by ensuring you're aware of what they're eating, thinking and fantasizing about at all times - without even asking them.
"One of the things we hear a lot in the media is that people who use social networks are somehow experiencing less closeness or less intimacy," Mr. Hampton says. "We asked about people's closest social ties - who are the people in your life with whom you discuss important matters. … Even when we control for all those demographic factors, people who use Facebook a lot have more of those close relationships."
There's no statistical breakdown of how much in-person time respondents actually spent with the people they counted as their nearest and dearest. But obviously you wouldn't interact with your closest friends only online.
Facebook users get by with more help from their friends
When prodded, people who use Facebook multiple times a day say they get more support - emotional, companionship and "instrumental" aid - than the average American, and five points higher, on a 100-point scale, than other Internet users.
"There's something about Facebook use that is associated with high levels of social support," Mr. Hampton notes. "It has been suggested this can be a personality characteristic. ... But I think it really does have something to do with your social network."
That extra assistance comes in handy, of course, when you need someone to milk your cow on Farmville.
Facebook users have more high school connections
News flash: Facebook is a fantastic way to "reconnect" with high school pals you last saw when you were 17 - the teenaged tormentors you thought you'd seen the last of at that awkward grad after-party.
Wrong! High school friends made up the plurality of categorized Facebook friends - more than 20 per cent of the average user's total.
But even more don't fit into any category - largely because they're what Mr. Hampton calls "dormant" relationships. Those are the acquaintances and friends-of-friends you added on Facebook on a whim or in a stupor. You don't know them very well at all, but you get regular updates on their internal health, their children's antics and their pets' dietary preferences.
"One of the most exciting things about Facebook to older users," Pew Centre director Lee Rainie says, "is that when they sign on, all of a sudden their world repopulates. All of a sudden, Facebook is delivering content or delivering names to them of people who might have connections. For older folks, this is one of the enchanting things about Facebook: It brings back memories."
Yup. Memories. And high-school stalkers. And people you can't remember how you know.
Facebook users are voyeurs
Another news flash: People spend a lot of time creeping each others' Facebook news feeds.
But the most common activity for that brand of online engagement is merely clicking "like" on photos, comments or links of which you approve - the lowest common denominator of social-network communication.
"How intensively people use Facebook, it's incredible," Mr. Hampton says, noting that more than half of users are commenting on someone else's photo at least once a week. "We should just call it the giant photo-sharing machine. It's amazing."
We could. But what kind of movie title would that make?
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