Reconfiguring friendships: social relationships and the internet

Abstract

Debate on the social role of the Internet has centred on whether its use will tend to isolate or connect individuals, undermining or reinforcing social ties. This study moves away from this focus on more or less connectivity to explore the degree to which people use the Internet to make new friends and, thereby, reconfigure their social networks. The analysis identifies those who create new ties through the Internet and investigates under what conditions these online ties migrate to face to face settings. The analysis is based on data from the 2005 Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS), a national probability sample survey of individuals aged 14 and over in Britain. The findings indicate that about 20 per cent of Internet users have met new friends online, and about half of these individuals go on to meet one or more of these virtual friends in person. Sociodemographic characteristics, such as being single, shape patterns of Internet use, and are related to the greater propensity of some individuals to make online social relationships. However, experience with the Internet and the ways people choose to use the Internet, such as for chatting or communicating more generally, are most directly associated with who makes new connections over the Internet and who does not. These findings suggest that the Internet plays an important role in reconfiguring the social networks of many users. Also, multivariate analyses indicate that the dynamics of online friendships are driven more by the idiosyncratic digital choices made by users of the Internet than by any mechanistic social or technological determinism.
DOI: 10.1080/13691180701657949
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