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See you on Facebook: the effect of social networking on human interaction

Here is the introduction of my latest paper on the relationship between online networking and human interaction.

Please follow this link to download the full paper.


See you on Facebook: the effect of social networking on human interaction


Angelo Antoci (University of Sassari)

Fabio Sabatini (Euricse - University of Trento)

Mauro Sodini (University of Pisa)


While we were writing this introduction, Facebook was working on plans for their 500 million user celebration, which took place in July 2010. This means that, if the website were granted a strip of land, it would be the world's third largest country by population, two-thirds bigger than the U.S.

Today, as we are drawing our conclusions, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has just been named Time Person of the Year 2010, “For connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them; for creating a new system of exchanging information; and for changing how we all live our lives” [1].

Facebook is the tip of the social networking iceberg. Other sites like Twitter, Flickr, and MySpace previously experienced a similar (even if more limited) growth. This is not the only reason why economics, political science, and sociology (in a strictly alphabetical order) should deal with the advent of online networking. According to Facebook's official statistics, 50% of active users log on in any given day. The average user has about 130 "friends", and total users spend over 700 billion minutes per month on the platform. There are over 900 million objects (pages, groups, events and community pages) that people interact with, and the average user is connected to 80 of them. Each one of these objects is conceived as a place for social interaction where people can share their views and plan actual meetings (e.g. attending a concert). More than 200 million active users interact with their Facebook friends through a mobile device. People that use Facebook on their mobiles are twice as active on Facebook than non-mobile users [2]. These numbers suggest that social interactions are undergoing a true revolution. The change is hitting public life and the economy as well. Think for example of how Mr. Obama used social networking sites (SNSs) to organize his supporters and win the presidential race, or of the major change online review systems like Tripadvisor brought about in vacation habits.

With respect to face to face interactions, social networking presents a number of easy to guess shortcomings, but it certainly exhibits two major advantages as well: it is less time intensive and less expensive too. Economic development brings about increasing pressure on time, which in turn causes a substitution of time intensive social activities - like dining with friends - with time saving private ones like watching television (Antoci, Sacco and Vanin, 2005, 2007, Antoci, Sabatini and Sodini, 2010a, 2010b). Internet-mediated interaction can potentially mitigate, or even reverse, such a worrying trend. SNSs like Facebook and Twitter allow users to stay in touch with friends in their spare time, while sitting at a desk during the work day or while waiting for the train.

However, social networking is a surprisingly neglected topic in the literature. To date, the social science debate on SNSs seems to be constrained to the fields of law and applied psychology, mostly pointing at "limited-scope" issues like privacy risks and the effects of the internet on teenagers' mental health. Until now, empirical research has indeed been  hampered by the lack of data. The social networking revolution is too recent: it is still very difficult to carry out reliable longitudinal analyses properly taking into account endogeneity problems. However, during the wait for suitable data, there is an urgent need to define a theoretical framework to investigate how the combined effect of online networking and time pressure is going to change social interaction.

 This paper proposes an evolutionary framework to explore the dynamics of social interaction in an environment characterized by online networking and increasing pressure on time. We assume that, in each instant of time , the share  of agents embrace a social networking strategy SN, i.e. their social participation relies both on online networks and face to face interaction. The remaining share of the population  adopts a face to face strategy FF: they do not interact online and thus develop all their relationships through face to face encounters. The payoff of the FF strategy, , depends on  and on the share of time devoted to social interaction, , which will be treated as an exogenous parameter in our analysis. The payoff for the individuals playing SN, , depends on an additional variable , expressing the wealth of ties forming online networks at time  or, in other words, the internet's stock of social capital. In this paper, we focus solely on the internet’s social capital, instead of also accounting for the stock of ties accumulated through face to face interactions. This strong assumption is motivated by two main reasons. First, there is a significant difference in the velocity of accumulation of the two types of stock. Online ties can be formed and deepened much more rapidly than face to face interactions. Second, given the extraordinary velocity with which the social networking revolution is taking off, our model is intended to address a rather limited lapse of time.

The analysis in the paper shows how time pressure biases the evolution of the two shares  and  (respectively playing SN and FF), through changes in the time  available for social participation. Our findings suggest that the joint influence exerted by the reduction in leisure time and the new opportunities for participation offered by SNSs may progressively lead a growing share of the population to embrace the SN strategy (i.e. it may lead society to a steady state in which ). This perspective is less worrying than it may seem at a first glance. "Pure" face to face relationships are not necessarily more rewarding than mixed interactions which rely both on actual encounters and continuous, less time consuming and less expensive web-mediated communication. On the contrary, under certain conditions, social networking may work as an indispensable instrument for preserving social interaction from the growing pressure on time and the deterioration in social life.

The reminder of the paper is organized as follows: in the next section we provide some definitions. In section three we critically review the related literature. In section four we present our assumptions and the model. In section five we analyze and comment on the model. The paper is closed by a discussion of results and a few concluding remarks.


Please follow this link to download the full paper


[1] Lev Grossman, Mark Zuckerberg Person of the Year 2010, published online on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010, Time, http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2036683_2037183,00.html.


[2] Facebook official statistics, retrieved online on November 30, 2010, at http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics.