“Communities with high levels of social capital are likely to have a higher quality of life than communities with a low social capital” ( Kavanaugh, Reese, Carroll & Rosson, 2004, p. 119). This was the conclusion of a study of social capital in societies. Social capital generally refers to cumulative social resources that resulted out of social interactions and bonds formed among people in a society. This implies that social capital of a community is good indicator of the intensity of social interactions that are happening among individuals belonging to the community.
The use of Social network sites ( SNSs) such as Facebook and Friendster has been found to have significant impacts on the level of social interactions hence social capital in a community because they enable individuals to establish new friendships and sustain existing ones without actual physical interactions. This wonderful product of the Internet technology helps millions of individuals around the globe to stay connected with their families, friends and acquaintances. Regardless of whether it’s for seeking romantic relationships, connecting people with common interests or finding job opportunities, SNSs always have something for everyone.
Although some may argue that SNSs cripple social interactions in a community, the use of SNSs plays an indispensable role in supplementing physical communications among individuals in a community. More importantly, SNSs can maintain existing relationships that were formed among people in addition to being capable of boosting social capital of a community SNSs may serve as an additional means of communication to offline physical interactions and therefore it supplements social interactions among individuals.
Wellman, Haase, Witte, & Hampton (2001) argues that while SNSs may not be the most important factor that forms social pattern in a society, it is still a part and parcel of people’s life (p. 440). Therefore, SNSs may help in reinforcing loose ties that resulted out of ineffective physical communications. Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe (2007) observe that most people that participate in their study use Facebook to consolidate social ties that were expressed by some type of offline communications (p. 162). Thus, individuals will be spending more time interacting with their friends through both online and offline means, resulting in greater interaction and stronger bond between friends. More importantly, Ellison et al. (2007) stressed the importance of online social network in helping individuals with low self confidence and low psychological welfare who find it challenging to form relationships through physical interactions (p. 1147).
SNSs may help to extend the narrow social horizons of people who suffer from low self-esteem due to repeated failures in making successful social connections by eliminating emotions in communications which may be arduous for such people to handle. Although SNSs may not be a substitute to offline communications, they can function as valuable and meaningful extensions to physical interactions which may help in closing communication gaps, tying up loose relationships or even restore broken ties between individuals because emotions are inherently absent in online communications.
The use of Social Network Sites for social interactions also has the advantage of maintaining ties between individuals. Wellman et al. (2001) finds that Social network sites are useful for interactions among individuals with strong ties that are socially and geographically separated. Thus, SNSs prevent the wasteful deterioration of strong relationships that took a long time to develop due to a lack in face-to-face communications between closely related individuals that were dispersed geographically. Ellison et al. 2007) further observe that when a person shifts from one geographical location to another, his access to substantial amount of social resources that were accumulated in the social networks left by him is lost and this would cause a reduction in social capital. SNSs help to reduce this loss of social capital by maintaining interactions between a person and the social network that he was in before he moves to another geographical location thereby sustaining relations as people shift from one offline community to another. ( Kavanaugh et al. 2004) states that SNSs, like other forms of communication, help individuals to sustain contacts with members of their social group, create relationships and gather aid as well as resources associated with social interactions (p. 119).
Therefore, weak ties formed by individuals with common interests online may be maintained through the use of SNSs. The weak relationships are capable of transforming into steadier ties through enhancement of organizational commitment associated with formation of frail ties online. Indeed, SNSs can form and sustain relationships that wouldn’t have existed otherwise (Gill, 2006, p. 12). More importantly, social interactions among these individuals will be ameliorated as the tendency of conversing about topics related to their common interest is increased. Kavanaugh et al. (2004) also found that Social networks and groups help members to have confidence in each other. As trust in social setting is crucial for genuine and sincere interactions among people in a community, high level of trust is necessary for the maintenance of inherent communications which in turn, is critical for developing stronger ties among individuals in a community.
Therefore, social trust will lead to a noticeable enhancement in the quantity and quality of social interactions in a community. SNSs helps to avoid the loss of social interactions by ensuring that ties formed between individuals are not lost due to physical separation thereby sustaining the vigor of these interactions or even enhancing them because physical separation of two individuals with strong ties is often associated with growing emotional attachments between them SNSs are also capable of enhancing social capital of a community and hence the level of social interactions in the community.
They do this by facilitating the formation of new relationships online, replacing physical interactions while circumventing barriers of space and time associated with most offline communication and increasing organizational participation among people in a community. Wellman et al. (2001) state that Social network sites will promote the formation of new relationships between strangers by facilitating the formation of opportunities for strangers with the same passion to interact (p. 38) This implies that SNSs are capable of integrating people of different social backgrounds that have similar passions into a single, larger social group thus facilitating social interactions that did not exist before. Stone and Brown ( 2006) reiterated this view by stating that the Internet allows people to proffer themselves and relish with the others the joy of sharing a common passion Moreover, Muller and Rheingold (2000) have observed that most new relationships formed online through the use of SNSs continue in the real world (as cited in Wellman et al, 2001, p. 438).
The physical interactions that resulted out of online interactions provide opportunities for consolidation of weak relationships formed online, culminating in greater social interactions among these individuals. Ellison et al. (2007) have explored the possibility of SNSs replacing face-to-face interactions which minimize any wastage of time spent online. In this way, people are able to have more time for communication due to elimination of time spent in traveling in order to meet each other physically hence increasing the likelihood of efficient communication to occur in a fixed amount of time.
Furthermore, communications through SNSs also have the advantages of being able to “overcome limitations of space and time” (Wellman et al, 2001, p. 438) thereby encouraging individuals to interact more frequently with each other since it is more convenient and less frustrating to do so in the absence of barriers of space and time . Although acquaintances formed online are mostly weak ties however, they are able to facilitate the flow of information among groups. “As such, they are important to the process of educating the community as a whole, and in organizing or mobilizing for collective action” ( Kavanaugh et al. 2004, p. 120). Such attribute associated with weak ties helps to enhance individual participation in organizations which is capable of further consolidating the initially “weak” relationships formed between individuals in a group. Norris (2002) states that online communities may also help to relieve some inherent social divisions that separate territorial communities (p. 11). This particular feature of online communications is useful in promoting social interaction among social groups that usually do not engage in face-to-face interactions due to differences in socio-economic backgrounds.
These communities have the potential to build a strong social capital between them as they live near each other and it will remain untapped if these social groups remain segregated. Thus , online interactions through SNSs may be able to prevent the complete loss of social capital and promote social interactions among socially divided enclaves as people from these groups will not know the socio-economic backgrounds of the person they are interacting with. By increasing the social capital of a community, SNSs indirectly promote social interaction within and between communities by providing a platform in which strangers rom different social groups but sharing a common interest can form a community to identify with and to be involved in.
More importantly, the use of SNSs as a means for communication has the inherent advantages of being able to bypass the inconveniences associated with offline interactions and this enables smoother flow of opinions and ideas between people, a catalyst which promotes organizational involvements in any society. . Some people may argue that SNSs actually cripple social interactions among people. Wellman et al. 2001) notice that “Online interactions may be diverting people from true community because online interactions are inherently inferior to face-to-face and even phone communications” (p. 439). This means that online interactions through the use of SNSs are distractions that eventually separate people from their immediate physical communities as there are no real emotions involved in. This may sounds plausible at first because absence of emotions in any form of communication is almost always associated with debilitating effects on social interactions.
However, absence of emotions in communications confers some advantages that can potentially mitigate its negative impacts. Individuals who are capable of forming and sustaining strong social connections through offline interactions alone have a high propensity of finding that conversing with people that live near them through SNSs instead of physical interactions actually reduce the potential of conflicts arising from face-to-face communications which tend to be more emotional than online interactions.
This helps to prevent unwanted deterioration or worse, the disintegration of social interactions between physically and emotionally close individuals. This is supported by Wellman et al. (2001) who state that “most internet contact is with people who live within an hour’s drive”. As for individuals who are unable to form and maintain strong ties through physical interactions, the absence of emotions in online communications through SNSs may help these people to express their opinions and ideas in a better way as they are more likely to find people who share similar interests.
More importantly, the likelihood of them being treated the way a human person deserves which requires other individuals to respect their ideas and opinions is much higher in online conversations since these people are less able to express their ideas when “chained” by emotional constraints that are present in face-to-face interactions. Thus, online interactions possess the potential of gradually restoring the confidence that such people have towards conventional face-to-face communication.
The above arguments propose that the use of SNSs have beneficial impacts on social interactions. They may facilitate social interactions by building social resources when people create new ties with individuals of similar passions and/or sustain existing relationships with friends and families. SNSs also enable continuity of established networks and lead to an increase in communal bonding by facilitating the transfer of information from one individual to another.
Even though SNSs may potentially impose debilitating effects on social interactions due to the emotionless nature of such interactions, and therefore, have the tendency to make people unaware of their immediate physical environments and communities, absence of emotions in conversations can turns out to be more of a boon than a bane . Nonetheless, both the positive and negative impacts of SNSs on social interactions will always be present in any society.
However, the extent to which they influence social interactions is likely to vary between societies. As long as societies are able to fully tap on the benefits of such form of online interactions while taking careful measures to mitigate its harmful effects then regardless of the hierarchal and organizational structures of the society and its initial intensity of interpersonal interactions, SNSs will be able to bring a greater good to communities around the world.