Circle of cyber friends

Stephen Fry does it. Jonathan Ross does it. Even Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Boris Johnson do it. ‘Tweeting’  has become something of a phenomenon, with stars and politicians writing updates from their exciting days  for their friends and fans.

And Twitter is not the only social network to make headlines – Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and others have such a large following that it is now quite rare to meet someone who does not have a profile on one of these sites.

The appeal and issues surrounding these sometimes controversial social networks has led to a growth in academic research in this area.

Experts in the field

The University of Wolverhampton has a number of leading experts working in this field, from perspectives such as the psychology and social behaviour of users and informetrics, which measures the value of web pages.

The interest in research is such that the University of Wolverhampton is set to host the first Social Networking and Cyberspace conference in April this year. The conference aims to raise the profile of research at the University and provide an opportunity for researchers to share ideas.

Dr Chris Fullwood is an expert in internet psychology and one of the organisers of the conference. His research focuses on chat room behaviour, the social support offered by the internet and how individuals manage and manipulate people’s impressions of them online.

He says: “Some people behave very similarly online as they do offline, while others create different personas. Certain environments allow people to adopt different personas more easily.

“Some people find their ‘real me’ online – they prefer to be online as they feel they can be themselves. In many ways the online world is more egalitarian, more equal. But as with everything, it depends on the individual.”

In an online world, people have more control over how they present themselves. They can create a favourable impression online, and even tinker with images and manipulate the way their interests and work life is presented.

But this can still cause problems.

“It can be a strain on how people present themselves. When you go on a date, or an interview or are out with friends then you present yourself differently and decide which bits to bring to the forefront for the occasion. But a site like Facebook puts across one identity and people will be judging you on that information and could make incorrect assessments from that,” Chris explains.

How to have good ‘netiquette’

Damian Ballam is a Visiting Lecturer in Psychology and is also currently doing a PhD focusing on behaviour in social networks. In particular he has investigated the new norms of behaviour online or “netiquette”.

After speaking to focus groups, Damian found that people had concerns about facilities such as ‘tagging’ people in photographs, which means the image appears on the person’s profile, and ‘Top Friends’ lists to rank their pals.

Some people felt that uploading pictures and tagging them was poor etiquette as it ignored their right to privacy, while others were offended if they were not tagged. Individuals also have different approaches to who they ‘accept’ as their friends. Some reported accepting requests from strangers, but some were very guarded and only confirmed close friends.

Damian says: “Online, the boundaries between your own and others’ spaces, between private and public, are blurred. We don’t present ourselves in the same way to everyone we know in everyday life; our boundaries of personal space can be very different with close friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues. But as everyone is categorised as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site, we give many people the same access to us online despite the different relationships to us face-to-face.”

There is also an issue of control. People can alter their images and project a favourable impression of themselves, but they have less control about what people write on their profile ‘wall’ and the comments they write on photographs.

“Anything you say in a wall post or comment is visible to all your friends. In everyday life you would not say something that everybody could hear. Everything is publicly visible in a way that it is not in everyday life,” Damian adds.

Online networking as social support

One of the most interesting aspects of research into social networks is the support offered by chat rooms or forums. Chris Fullwood has published a paper, Comforting Communication in Online Epilepsy Forum, in the Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation looking into the help offered by chat rooms.

Chris says: “The general appeal is that we can connect with someone who has suffered from a similar illness or disease. The online world can be very beneficial for people suffering from a condition that may be stigmatised.

Anonymity seemed to be an important factor in allowing people to discuss their thoughts and feelings. People may feel more able to open up and talk about things that are private or embarrassing. Certain things are missing from this form of communication, such as physical contact, but there are benefits such as disinhibition.”

But for those of us still left wondering why people feel the need to have lists of friends online and post pictures of themselves on holiday or on a night out, Chris has an answer for the general appeal of these sites.

“There are millions of people who use Facebook and the universal appeal is the human need to feel part of something, part of a social circle. Communities are not as close as they were – people don’t know their neighbours and move away from their families. But these sites provide a social support network, and that is important for people.”

Social Networking in Cyberspace conference

The Social Networking in Cyberspace conference is organised by the Wolverhampton Internet and Technology Society (WITS) and the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton.

The conference takes place on Friday, 23 April 2010 at the Lighthouse Media Centre and is sponsored by the University’s Research Centre in Applied Sciences (RCAS).

The keynote speakers will be Professor Mike Thelwall, from the University of Wolverhampton, and Dr Monica Whitty from  Nottingham Trent University.

For details about the event, please email SNIC@wlv.ac.uk