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Social Media and Relationships

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Abstract

Understanding how social media systems affect the way people work, learn, and live requires examination of the ways in which social media use is affected by and affects relationships. No matter what the underlying technology, the power of social media systems arises from the impact they have on relationships. Whether in friendship and dating relationships or professional and work relationships, social media use shapes and is shaped by how individuals see their relationships, who they have relationships with, and how those relationships are formed, maintained, and ended.
Social Media and
Relationships
BRIAN S. BUTLER
University of Maryland, US
SABINE MATOOK
University of Queensland, Australia
Inanincreasinglydigitalworld,socialmedia
systems have become deeply embedded in many
day-to-day relationships. A grandmother sees
pictures of all her grandchildrens activities and
accomplishments, even though the family is
dispersed all over the world. A college student
receives a reward for referring her roommate
to an online site that has an open programmer
position. Videos of cats, babies, and famous (and
not so famous) people are seen widely as they
are shared from one person to another. Politi-
cians face scandals when private messages and
photos become public. Project team members are
able to work together more eectively because
theyaremadeawareofeachothers’workhabits
andoutcomes.Youngadultskeepintouchwith
friends from high school and nd new friends
at college through email and Facebook. Sales-
people carefully monitor who they connect to on
LinkedIn to avoid being accused of stealing their
rms’clients.Ineachcase,socialmediaaects
relationships,andinsodoingsignicantlyaects
thewaypeoplework,learn,andlive.
Socialmediaareacollectionoftechnolo-
giesandapplicationsthatallowindividualsto
communicate, exchange information, and share
digital artifacts (e.g., photos and videos) with one
another, oen in the context of larger groups,
communities, or networks. Social media systems
are very diverse. ey include wikis, micro and
normal blogs, online social networks for personal
and professional use, virtual worlds, and online
community platforms (Kaplan & Haenlein,
2010). Social media systems can be standalone
or be incorporated into larger multipurpose plat-
forms.eycanoperateentirelywithinasingle
e International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, First Edition.
Edited by Robin Mansell and Peng Hwa Ang.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118290743.wbiedcs097
organization or support interaction and sharing
outside the context of traditional organizations.
Although the nature of the underlying tech-
nologies and features of specic social media
systems vary signicantly, a common element of
allsocialmediasystemsisthattheyaect,and
areaectedby,therelationshipsthattheirusers
are involved in. Social media systems all support
some form of interaction and information shar-
ing, whether it is explicit interaction based on the
exchange of discrete messages among identied
individuals (e.g., social networking sites), or
indirect interaction that takes place through the
construction and discussion of shared artifacts
(e.g., wikis and blogs). However, explaining the
use and impact of social media systems requires
recognition that interpersonal communication
is not an isolated mechanical action. How a
social media system is used, what information
is exchanged, what communication occurs, and
how that information sharing aects individuals
and their behavior is inevitably shaped by the rela-
tionships that individuals have with one another.
Social media use and the interactions it supports
exist within the context of family relationships,
work relationships, collaborations, acquaintance
relationships, and friendships. Understanding the
full potential, impact, and limitations of social
media systems requires an analysis of how they
are aected by and aect interpersonal relation-
ships. More than simple information sharing,
social media systems matter because of the ways
they leverage and change relationships.
Online and Offline Relationships
and Social Media
ere is a well-developed, interdisciplinary body
of research that considers how social media
enabled online relationships relate to oine rela-
tionships. As the scale and scope of the internet
have grown, online relationships, or relationships
in which individuals interact entirely through
computer mediated communications systems
such as email, have become more common. ese
2SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS
relationshipstypicallyarecontrastedwithoine
relationships in which interactions between
individuals occur through traditional media
such as telephone or face-to-face conversation.
Scholars and commentators have described
three ways in which social media enabled online
relationshipsrelatetotraditional,oinerela-
tionships: (1) social media systems enable new
relationships by overcoming the limitations
of oine relationships; (2) social media systems
enable online relationships that substitute for, and
thus diminish, oine relationships; and (3) social
media systems enable online relationships that
complement and reinforce oine relationships
(Ellison et al., 2010).
Online relationships as new opportunities
Much of the initial excitement about social
media systems over the past several decades has
stemmed from a somewhat utopian view of their
potential to enable relationships that otherwise
would be dicult or impossible. rough the use
of social media, individuals can “meet,” befriend,
and work with people in organizations and coun-
tries that would otherwise not be accessible. For
example, microblogs enabled some political activ-
ities in the Middle East during the Arab Spring
in 2011; and social networking sites allow indi-
viduals with rare medical conditions to receive
information and support from one another.
Online relationships underlie the formation of
new groups and the emergence of new social
links between existing communities (Ellison
et al., 2010). Individuals living in geographically
isolated communities can develop learning, col-
laborative, and social relationships outside their
immediate area. Employees in distributed, multi-
national rms can develop the relationships they
need in order to nd and use expertise within
the larger organization. e ability to support
the formation of new relationships that bridge
geographic, political, and social boundaries is a
signicant driver of social media’s transformative
impact on organizations and society.
Online relationships as substitutes
ere is a longstanding, popular narrative about
social media enabled online relationships sub-
stituting for, competing with, and otherwise
diminishing oine relationships (Wang & Well-
man, 2010). For example, a commonly expressed
concern is that teenagers are not developing
valuable communication and social skills because
they only interact through features of social media
systems such as pokes, tweets, and texts. Similar
concerns surface about social groups in public
settings such as restaurants and parks, where the
individuals in the groups are present but ignoring
one another because they are focused on their
mobile devices. Such anecdotes support the idea
that social media enabled online relationships
can displace and damage oine interaction and
relationships.
Research on relationship formation suggests
that social media systems may increase the homo-
geneity of relationships with potentially negative
consequences. When given a choice, individuals
tendtoformrelationshipswithotherswhoarelike
themselves.istendency,knownashomophily,
results in relationship networks composed of
people with similar attitudes, beliefs, knowl-
edge, and even appearance. In oine contexts,
individuals’ choices are limited by geographic,
organizational, and social constraints and, as a
result, relationship networks tend to be diverse.
Social media systems reduce these constraints,
allowing people to select relationship partners
from a much larger population. e principle
of homophily suggests that when social media
enabled online relationships substitute for oine
relationships, people will create more homoge-
neous sets of relationships, a phenomenon with
important implications for political news and
information sharing networks.
Questions have also been raised about the qual-
ity of online relationships when they substitute
for oine relationships. In some regards, online
relationships are direct substitutes for oine
relationships. Communication with a colocated
friend and interaction with a friend who is
halfway around the world are, at some level, just
two competing ways for individuals to spend
their time and energy. Individuals routinely make
such choices and choose the relationship that
they value and benet from more. However,
while online and oine relationships seem to be
direct substitutes, dierences between the media
introduce subtle dierences in the relationships
that individuals may not take into account. Social
media enabled online relationships may seem like
SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS 3
themoreecientwaytondandformfriend-
ships, but those relationships can be insucient
if physical touch or intensive persuasion are
necessary. Similarly, social media systems may
enable long-distance collaborations, but partic-
ipants oen nd that those relations are more
fragile,leadingtoproblemswhencrisesariseand
needs change. As a consequence, social media
enabled online relationships are oen imper-
fect substitutes for oine relationships, and when
individuals fail to take the dierences into account
unexpected negative outcomes can emerge. e
possibility of online relationships replacing
oine relationships is a second, more ambivalent
or dystopic factor in social media’s transformative
impact on organizations and society.
Online relationships as complements
Although there are contexts in which social
media systems enable new and/or substitute
for oine relationships, it is most common for
online relationships to complement oine ones
(Wang & Wellman, 2010). Early studies of online
communities, email, and discussion forums in
the 1980s and 1990s suggested that social media
enabled online relationships were poor substi-
tutes, associated with dysfunctional interaction
behaviors (e.g., aming), loss of identity cues,
weaker relationships with family members living
in the same household, smaller social circles,
and higher levels of depression and loneliness.
However, subsequent studies have found little
evidence for these negative substitution eects,
and instead showed that there are many ways
in which online and oine relationships com-
plement one another. As individuals increase
their use of social media systems, they tend to
have more contact with their friends and family
members, resulting in larger and more diverse
social networks. Greater use of social networking
sites and larger online social networks is asso-
ciated with having more social ties and higher
levels of social interaction oine. ese spillover
eects occur because social media systems are
used to arrange, coordinate, and follow up on
oine meetings and social events. Relationships
formed online are oen continued oine as they
develop.Whiletheremaybecontextsinwhich
online and oine relationships function either
independently or as competing substitutes, in
most cases they act as complements.
Existing oine relationships aect the way indi-
viduals use social media systems and how online
relationships can enhance and support oine
ones. e complementarity of online and oine
relationships means that social media systems
are subject to a “rich-get-richer” phenomenon.
Individuals with stronger, more diverse, more
extensive relationships oine are able to use
social media systems to maintain and add to
those relationships online, while those with
weaker, less diverse, smaller social circles receive
less relational benet from the use of social media
(Kraut et al., 2002). e capability of social media
enabled online relationships to complement
oine relationships is a third basis for social
media’s transformative impact on organizations
and society.
While a strong distinction could be made
between online and oine relationships, as social
media have become more widely available, more
powerful, and more generally accepted, this
dichotomy has become problematic for both
theory and practice (Wang & Wellman, 2010). As
the number and diversity of relationships sup-
ported by and aected by social media systems
have grown, it has become unclear what it means
to talk about online relationships as a category
or type. At the same time, media convergence,
emergence of mobile technologies, and broad
availability of social media systems have reduced
thebarriersthatledindividualstodistinguish
betweenonlineandoinerelationships.Phone
conversations, tweets, texts, pokes, shares, likes,
chats, and emails are routinely used by individ-
uals to set up meetings, arrange dates, continue
conversations, and even interact with people
who are physically co-present. us it becomes
increasingly dicult to make a distinction
between online and oine relationships in both
practical and conceptual terms. Whereas some
useful insights have arisen from examination of
relationships in terms of their “location,” it is an
increasingly problematic way of understanding
social media systems and relationships.
Social Media and Types of Relationships
Individuals use social media systems in the
context of many dierent relationships. Friends
4SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS
exchange pictures and videos clips. Consumers
interact with one another and with represen-
tatives of the organizations providing products
and services. Research collaborators plan and
execute projects. Family members share news of
accomplishments and signicant life events. In
each case, the basic capability of social media
systems to support communication, informa-
tion exchange, and sharing of digital artifacts is
appropriated by individuals in support of their
relationships.
Friendships
Friendshipsareacommontypeofrelationship
that are found among individuals of all ages,
cultures, and social contexts. ese relationships,
which include acquaintances, casual friends, and
close friends, are voluntary and reciprocal rela-
tionships in which partners respond to each other
personally and show communal caring. Individu-
als gain a variety of benets through friendships,
including ego support, self-armation, secu-
rity, utility, and stimulation (Wright, 1984).
Friendship relationships provide attachment,
companionship, help, and emotional support.
Friendships vary in intensity, and the closeness
among friends is oen used as a measure of
relationship strength.
Socialmediasystemshaveavarietyofaor-
dances that support friendship relationships.
Social networking sites, a class of social media
systems specically designed to support relation-
ship management, allow individuals to create rich
personal proles, identify relationship partners,
interact with one another, and traverse relational
links in a variety of ways (Ellison et al., 2010).
Eachoftheseactivitiessupportsthecreationand
maintenance of friendship relationships.
Most notably, social media systems support
several forms of reciprocity, a central feature of
friendship relationships. At their core, friend-
ships are bi-directional relationships in which the
parties must both voluntarily and actively choose
to participate. Social media systems oer a variety
of ways for individuals to enact reciprocity. In
some cases, such as Facebook, recognition of a
relationship within the system requires explicit
acknowledgment by both relationship partners.
Inothers,suchasTwitter,mutualacknowledg-
ment is possible, but not required. Similarly,
when individuals share messages, images, or
information, social media systems encourage
recipients to respond with action such as likes,
accepts, comments, and replies, each of which
isaformofacknowledgmentandreciprocity
that supports and strengthens the relation-
ship. Repeatedly performing these reciprocating
behaviors allows friendships to be maintained,
and even become closer, over time.
e voluntary, reciprocal nature of friend-
ships in social media systems also results in
them being characterized by relative equality in
powerandstatus.Onaverageauserhasinhis
or her network relationship partners that are of
thesamestatusandwhocannotmakeimpos-
ing demands. In situations when imbalanced
relationships emerge among mainly friendship
relationships, then a change in behavior is observ-
able, such as decreased levels of self-disclosure
or, in extreme circumstances, dissolution of the
relationships.
It has sometimes been argued that friendships
that only exist in social media systems are less sat-
isfactory than those that are maintained through
both online and face-to-face interactions (Kraut
et al., 2002). is suggests that hybrid friendships
should dominate, with purely online and purely
oine relationships becoming less common over
time. While a hybrid approach to friendships may
be a superior way to maintain and to strengthen
a friendship between two individuals, individuals
mayalsomaintainaportfolioofrelationships
consisting of a number of dierent friendships
that satisfy dierent social needs. us purely
social media enabled friendships may be well
suitedforsocialandemotionalsupport.Text
basedfeaturesofsocialmediasystemsfacilitate
postings where friends can articulate their con-
gratulations, encouragements, and best wishes
as an easy-to-use possibility for giving support.
Whether selecting among or combining dierent
media, individuals have a steadily increasing col-
lection of options when it comes to maintaining
relationships with their friends.
Kinship relationships
Kinship relationships are the relationships that
individuals have with members of their family
by virtue of birth, marriage, or adoption. At
one level, these relationships are dierent from
SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS 5
friendships because they are oen not volun-
tary or reciprocal. Except in the case of some
marriages, an individual is related to other mem-
bers of their family because of someone else’s
choice, not their own. Relationships among fam-
ily members are also subject to status dierences,
social norms, and expectations that make kinship
relationships nonreciprocal.
In spite of these dierences, however, kinship
relationshipshaveelementsthataresimilarto
friendships and other relationships. Like friend-
ships, kinship relationships are enacted through
exchanges and interactions. Exchanging gis,
sharing information, and maintaining an aware-
nessoftheactivitiesofothersareimportant
behaviors in kinship relationships. Although
there may be social norms about these behaviors,
how much an individual chooses to engage in
relational activities with particular family mem-
bers is voluntary. As a result, the frequency with
which these activities occur reects the close-
ness, strength, and importance of the kinship
relationship for the individuals involved.
e nature of kinship relationships means
that social media systems have distinct eects
on kinship and family relationships. In cases of
marriage, dating, and romantic relationships,
which in many cultures blend the features of
friendship and kinship, social media systems play
an increasingly signicant role. Online dating, in
which individuals discover, evaluate, and interact
with one another through both formal services
andinformalsocialcontacts,isanincreasingly
common phenomenon. In these relationships,
issues of how individuals present themselves and
how people form impressions of one another
come to the fore. Social media systems’ fea-
tures for creating rich personal proles both
support the formation of long-term relation-
ships and provide opportunities for deceptive
self-presentation.
Social media systems also aect kinship and
family relationships because they provide addi-
tional means for individuals to share information
and communicate with one another. Social net-
working sites, photo sharing platforms, and group
communications technologies all allow family
members to remain connected with one another
across distance, time, and national boundaries.
Parents can monitor children’s behavior and
activities, even aer they leave home. Older
family members can continue to interact with
others even aer their ability to travel becomes
impaired. Individuals who share only minimal
kinship ties can nd one another through online
genealogical communities and develop those
otherwise latent relationships. Within the context
of otherwise nonvoluntary kinship relationships,
social media systems allow individuals to share
information and communicate with one another
in ways that strengthen those relationships.
Professional relationships
Relationships are also a critical aspect of how
people and organizations work and collabo-
rate. Job seekers learning about employment
opportunities, entrepreneurs discovering and
receiving venture capital, managers monitoring
and inuencing activities in their organization,
and team members coordinating their collabora-
tive eorts – all of these activities rely, in part, on
professional and collaborative relationships.
As with friendships, professional relationships
vary with respect to their strength. Although
professional relationships typically lack the emo-
tional component of friendships, they dier in
terms of frequency and diversity of interaction.
At one extreme, strong professional relationships,
such as might exist between close colleagues,
involve frequent interactions and cover a wide
range of topics. ese strong relationships, which
evoke trust and interdependence, can be critical
for resolving problems when individuals and
organizations face crises and internal conict.
While strong professional ties are important,
individuals typically have many more work rela-
tionshipsthatarebasedoninfrequentinteraction
and minimal dependence. Yet, in spite of their
limitations, weak ties are critical to individuals’
ability to succeed in work settings. For example,
studies of the eectiveness of word-of-mouth
inuence have found that strong ties with friends,
family, and close condants are more inuential
than weak ties when sensitive information is
shared within groups, while the reverse is true for
general information sharing across groups (Smith
et al., 2007). Weak ties are valuable sources of
exploratory information, whereas close relation-
ships are essential to mobilize resources and
support. Together, the strong and weak relation-
ships that individuals have in the workplace play
6SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS
a signicant role in shaping their information,
opportunities, and inuence.
A variety of social media systems have been
developed to facilitate professional relationships.
General professional networking systems, the
most prominent of which is LinkedIn, provide
a platform for individuals to track and leverage
their relationships with professional colleagues
and contacts. Within particular contexts, such as
scientic research and specialist communities,
domain specic networking systems have been
created to help individuals discover partners,
collaborators, and coauthors. Large organiza-
tions oen implement social media systems to
promote the formation and use of relationships
among employees, customers, suppliers, and
other stakeholders.
One of the most signicant unanticipated
consequences of social media systems for profes-
sional relationships is the blurring of boundaries
between social contexts. Family, friends, and
colleagues are roles that oen exist largely within
separate social spheres. When possible, indi-
viduals manage their relationships with friends,
family, and work colleagues in ways that assume
that the individuals from the dierent spheres
willnotbeinteracting,orevenbeawareofeach
other.
However, social media systems, such as Twitter
or Facebook, have the eect of bringing these rela-
tionships (and individuals) together. As a result,
on social networking sites, boundaries between
individuals’ private and professional relationships
are blurred. In analyzing the composition of
individuals’ Facebook contacts, Manago, Taylor,
and Greeneld (2012) found that the majority
were acquaintances (27%), followed by coworkers
and teammates with 24%; close contacts such
as best friends and romantic partners made up
24%; and only 18% of contacts came from the
userspast,suchashighschoolfriends.isblur-
ring of boundaries, known as context collapse,
means that relationships that previously could
be treated as independent become interdepen-
dent. Information and behavior that might have
been treated as semiprivate potentially become
semipublic. As social media systems have prolif-
erated, boundaries between work and personal
life that could previously be relied upon have, for
many people, become permeable and, sometimes,
even disappeared. e incorporation of social
media systems within the workplace has begun
to change both professional relationships and the
relationship between employees and employers
in ways that researchers have only begun to
understand.
Consumer relationships
Another context in which social media systems
aect critical relationships is retail marketing and
commerce. At one level, retail commerce involves
economic transactions that take place between
consumers who provide nancial resources in
exchange for products or services provided by
producers.Whilethistypeofexchangecanbe
thought of as being only a transactional, eco-
nomic relationship, doing so potentially ignores
other, more social, aspects of relationships that
aect the functioning of consumer marketplaces.
Individual consumers develop relationships
with producers that go beyond basic economic
exchanges (Granovetter, 1985). Individual con-
sumers exhibit loyalty and trust in producers; they
interact with them, and oen declare themselves
as being aliated with individual producers and
companies that they do business with.
In addition to producer consumer relation-
ships, consumer– consumer relationships also
play a signicant role in retail commerce. For
many purchases, consumers rely on their relation-
ships with one another to learn about products,
services, and providers. is information sharing,
referred to as word of mouth, is an important
factor in many purchase decisions. us, while
retail commerce may appear to consist of rela-
tively mechanical, economic transactions, it is
in fact a set of activities that are both embedded
in and enacted through a complex web of social
relationships.
As with friendships, kinship, and profes-
sional relationships, social media systems have
a variety of implications for consumer relation-
ships. Social media systems are used in both
consumer– producer and consumer consumer
relationships. Consumer producer relationships
are realized in social media systems when indi-
viduals take actions that associate them with
specic product or service providers, such as
when a consumer adds a company as a Facebook
friend or signs up for a company’s online commu-
nity. Features of social media systems simplify the
SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS 7
formation of consumer producer relationships.
Facebook’s “Like” button allows consumers to
establish aliation and communication with a
company with a single click. Producers benet
from being added to a consumer’s Facebook
friendslistbecauseoftheimplicitendorsement
and visibility they receive when the alia-
tion is communicated to others in the persons
social network. Social media marketing seeks to
develop and leverage these relationships in order
to inuence purchasing decisions.
e widespread adoption of social media
systems has led many organizations to change
their marketing eorts, shiing from broadcasts
through mass media to relationship oriented use
of social media. Word of mouth, or consumer-to-
consumer communication about products and
service experiences, has signicantly increased in
importance. Word-of-mouth marketing employs
professional marketing techniques to actively
shape how individual consumers use their rela-
tionshipstoshareandacquireinformationabout
products and services (Kozinets et al., 2010).
Close friends on Facebook, other Facebook
contacts, third-party blogs, and independent
reviewsiteshaveallbeenidentiedasimportant
sources of trustworthy information (Harris &
Dennis, 2011). Less trusted are celebrities with
independent voices and information provided by
retailers or producers. ese sources are suspect
because consumers assume that the other parties
have a strong self-interest to promote the product
and highlight its benets. is ranking of social
media information sources mirrors the dier-
ent types of relationships an individual might
have – ranging from very close relationships to
very loosely connected relationships. Individuals
who are known by a consumer, with whom they
interact frequently, and who they perceive as
nonbiased are more trusted to provide informa-
tion and recommendations than sources such as
salespeople, celebrity spokespeople, or company
websites.
Social network analysis and social media sys-
tems allow companies to identify the most inu-
ential individuals in large networks (Wasserman
& Faust, 1994). Information about relation-
ships captured in social media systems enables
producers to identify relationships that bridge
otherwise dispersed networks. ese ties, which
cross structural holes, can provide a rm access
tootherwiseclosednetworksofpotentialcus-
tomers (Burt, 1992). Starbucks, a pioneer and
leader of eective social media use, has three
customer dialogue management strategies which
rely on these social media systems and consumer
relationships: megaphone, magnet, and monitor
(Gallaugher & Ransbotham, 2010). A megaphone
activity involves Starbucks in sharing information
directly with its customers via Twitter (3.5 mil-
lion followers), YouTube (Starbucks has its own
YouTube channel), or Facebook. ese actions
strengthenitsbrandnameandspreadtime-
critical information. e magnet strategy uses the
same systems and relies on consumer–producer
relationships, but operates in the opposite direc-
tion, with customers sharing information with
Starbucks. is inbound communication is used
by the rm both to capture customer feed-
backandtoidentifypotentialinnovations,such
as new drinks or avors. Using social media
systems for megaphone and magnet activities
allows Starbucks to enhance and leverage existing
consumer– producer relationships. Monitor activ-
ities involve using social media systems to observe
consumer consumer interactions that are rel-
evant for Starbucks, such as customer reviews
postedatYelp.eobserverrolegivesStarbucks
a knowledge advantage that increases the chances
that the marketing messages it designs will be
shared by word of mouth (i.e., “go viral”). By
monitoring social media based communications
among consumers, Starbucks also gains insights
into trends and gathers market intelligence. ese
three strategies, and the benets Starbuck receives
from them, illustrate the dierent ways that orga-
nizations can use social media systems to support
and realize benets from consumer producer
and consumer – consumer relationships.
Scholars, advertisers, and political activists see
massiveonlinesocialnetworksasarepresentation
of social interactions that can be used to study
the propagation of ideas, social bond dynamics,
and viral marketing. But the linked structures of
social networks do not necessarily reveal actual
interactions or meaningful relationships among
people. For example, within Twitter, the driver of
real usage is not raw follower counts, but rather
a sparse and hidden network of connections
underlying the publicly declared set of friends
and followers. Scarcity of attention and the daily
rhythms of life and work lead people to interact
8SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS
with a small number of people who matter and
reciprocate their attention.
Another way that social media systems alter
therelationshipsbetweenrmsandtheircon-
sumers is by allowing the relationship to shi
from being based purely on two complemen-
tary roles (producer and consumer) to one in
which at least some individuals participate as
co-producers. Companies increasingly seek
to establish relationships with individuals in
which consumers take more active roles in co-
producing innovations, value, and meaning.
Beyond simply soliciting ideas from customers,
crowdsourcing and open innovation are the
practice of involving individuals in problem
solving and idea-generation processes which
traditionally were performed entirely in-house
(Howe, 2008). rough social media based
crowdsourcing platforms, such as 99designs,
iStockphoto, and Crowdspring, companies create
knowledge intensive relationships focused on
formal exchange of ideas for money, recognition,
and other forms of motivation. By allowing indi-
viduals to learn about and participate in problem
solving and innovation processes, social media
systemshavethepotentialtoaltertheroleof
individuals in consumer relationships from that
of relatively passive participants to that of active
creators.
Friendships, kinship, professional relationships,
consumer relationships, and co-production rela-
tionships – each type of relationship aects and
is aected by social media in dierent ways. e
aordances that social media systems provide
allow individuals and organizations to create pro-
les, exchange information, make associations,
andseethetiesthatothershavecreatedandmain-
tained. As described above, how these capabilities
areusedandtheimpacttheyhavedependon
the objectives, expectations, and nature of each
type of relationship. Yet examination of dierent
typesofrelationshipsrevealsanadditionalway
that social media systems can aect relationships:
ey can redene them. Facebook allows users
to identify “friends.” LinkedIn asks people to
identify “classmates” and “colleagues.” Twitter
usersbecomeandacquire“followers.”Onthe
one hand, these are simple labels, which signal
to users when and how to use the social media
systems. On the other hand, when the use of a
particular system, such as Facebook, becomes
widespread, it can result in the development of an
alternative relationship type with its own expec-
tations, norms, and structures (i.e., real friends vs.
“Facebook friends”). As a result, the examination
of the interplay of relationship and social media
systems in terms of relationship types, while
powerful, must be exercised with caution to avoid
misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
Social Media and Relationship Dynamics
A social relationship exists when two entities
have interactions with and expectations for each
other over a substantial length of time. While
it is possible to consider relationships as static
phenomena, in reality relationships are dynamic.
Relationships form, develop, and end. Character-
istics of relationships that transcend the dierent
stages may still vary in intensity, visibility, and
importance over time. Changes within relation-
ships can be deliberately initiated by participants
or happen by chance. us understanding social
media and relationships requires a consideration
ofhowtheyinteractatthedierentstagesof
relationship evolution.
Relationship formation
eformationofarelationshipdependson
a number of factors including proximity, rst
impressions, similarity, and complementarity
(Dwyer, 2000). e online environment of social
media increases or decreases the relevance of
some of these factors. Physical proximity is less
important because social media systems allow
individualstobephysicallyseparatedandstill
frequently interact. Indeed, Facebook is praised
for its ability to rekindle relationships between
school peers or childhood friends who have
movedapart.However,whilesocialmediareduce
the importance of physical proximity as a factor
in relationship formation, they can introduce new
functional or communication barriers. Bound-
aries between social media systems, whether they
arise because of corporate structure, technology
features, or national policies, all make it less
likely that a relationship will form between two
individuals using dierent social media systems.
For example, in China the social networking
site Facebook is blocked. is policy results in a
SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS 9
strong boundary between Facebook and other
Chinese oriented social networking sites such as
RenRen. Integration between social networking
sites can facilitate the formation of relationships
among individuals from the dierent user pop-
ulations, but corporate strategy and technology
limitations can prevent these bridges from being
created. Just as physical proximity is an important
enabler for traditional relationships, in the land-
scape of social media systems, media proximity
that allows individuals to encounter and interact
with one another plays an important role in the
formationofsocialmediaenabledrelationships.
First impressions, oen based on physical
appearance, are another signicant factor in face-
to-face interaction that impacts on the extent to
which individuals want to form relationships with
one another. Early discussions of text based social
media systems operated from the assumption
that the absence of visual cues would reduce,
or even eliminate, the impact of appearance
on relationship formation. However, Walther’s
(1992) social information processing theory
argued that people needed more time to reduce
the uncertainty about the potential relationship
partner because limited cues are available. To
counterbalance the vacuum created by the lack
of visual cues, individuals add various personal
details to their proles. When individuals decide
about forming relationships based on online
interactions, these personal proles are used to
form impressions of the potential relationship
partner and allow for aection and liking to
manifest. Furthermore, social media systems
with multimedia capabilities allow individuals
to attach photos and videos to their online pro-
les, re-emphasizing appearance as a factor in
relationship dynamics. However, even with the
advent of multimedia proles, it remains the case
that social media systems dier from face-to-face
contexts in that they allow individuals much ner
grained control of what they wish to reveal about
themselves.
An abstract factor that aects the formation of
relationships is the t between the interests, skills,
and resources of the participants. Homophily, or
attraction of similar individuals, is a strong ten-
dencyintheformationofrelationships.Whether
it is based on surface characteristics, such as
race, gender, or ethnicity, or deep characteristics,
such as values and beliefs, individuals oen seek
out and form relationships with others who are
like themselves. However, homophily is counter-
balanced by a need for complementarity. Because
exchanges play a signicant role, viable relation-
ships oen involve individuals whose interests,
capabilities, and needs complement one another.
Together the two tendencies of homophily and
complementarity are signicant factors in the
formationofrelationships.
Whether homophily or complementarity dom-
inates depends on the nature of the relationship.
Resource and need complementarity is a greater
concernintheformationofutilityorientedrela-
tionships, such as professional aliations or work
related collaborations. Sites such as LinkedIn pro-
vide recommendations, discussions of job open-
ings, searches for information, and introductions
to otherwise unreachable individuals all based on
complementarity in order to support the forma-
tion of professional relationships. In social media
systems, such as Facebook, that focus less on util-
itarian, but still on voluntary relations, the tech-
nology provides recommendations, searches, and
alerts that focus more on similarities, reecting
the greater importance of homophily.
Social media systems change the conditions
under which relationships form. By reducing
the need for physical proximity, these systems
support faster, broader relationship formation.
By changing how personal information is con-
veyed, they shi the locus of control, change
thedynamicsofself-presentation,andalterthe
role of impression management in relationship
formation. us, while the fundamental basis
for relationships does not change, social media
systems can signicantly alter what relation-
ships exist by how they encourage and promote
relationship formation.
Relationship maintenance
and development
One way that relationships develop is when the
participants perform behaviors that reduce the
social distance between them. Exchange based
theories of relationships, such as social exchange
theory or social comparison theory, suggest that
expectations of positive rewards are the driv-
ing force for relationship development. ese
rewards can include pleasant communications,
10 SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS
the exchange of photos, and the sharing of news.
Socialmediasystemsprovidefeaturesthatfacil-
itate the exchange of rewards among relationship
partners. Despite the uncertainties associated
with gi giving, as rst articulated by Marcel
Mauss in his seminal work e Gi,thecost
of a digital gi, such as “Like” or a supportive
comment, is low compared to an oine gi.
Digital gis and other gi giving practices in
social media turn the event focused act of hand-
ingoveragiasapresentforaspecialoccasion
into an everyday practice and, in doing so, sig-
nicantly aect relationship evolution (Skågeby,
2010).
Another way that relationships develop is
when the partners share gradually more personal
information. Based on generalized reciprocity,
increased self-disclosure of one individual is
likely to lead to higher self-disclosure by the
other, strengthening the relationship. Users dis-
close personal information in social networking
sites for a variety of reasons, including conve-
nience, the ability to build relationships and
received value from them, recognition, and
enjoyment of interpersonal relationships (Kras-
nova et al., 2010). ese factors are analogous
to ndings from technology acceptance research
that showed perceived ease of use, perceived
enjoyment, and perceived usefulness to be pivotal
drivers for technology use. Social media systems
leverage the correspondence of motivations for
self-disclosure and technology use to promote
continued use of the technology and evolution of
the relationships aected by it.
e role of social media systems in relationship
maintenance and development is particularly
important for the mobile workforce and tele-
workers. ese individuals are oen physically
separatedfromtheirfamily,friends,andcowork-
ersand,asaresult,oennditdicultto
maintain these relationships. For these indi-
viduals, social media systems provide a way to
increase feelings of belonging and social integra-
tion through the continuance of the physically
cut-o relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
Driven by the desire for attachment, these indi-
viduals use both active and passive features
of social media systems to communicate with
others in their social network and maintain
their relationships (Burke, Marlow, & Lento,
2010).
Relationship dissolution
Relationships that have grown close over time
are characterized by increased self-disclosure and
the sharing of personal details. Yet the absence of
face-to-face interaction complicates verication
of the exchanged information. us it is easy for
individuals to create representations of them-
selves, provide false or misleading information,
or purposefully omit certain information to gain
personal benets. Concealing an individual’s true
identity is even part of some social media systems
by design. For example, in Second Life and other
virtual worlds, individuals are represented by
avatarswhoserepresentationalimageispure
ction. However, in the context of relationships,
deception about self-identity, whether intentional
or not, can have detrimental impacts. Conse-
quently, deceiving which is easily done in social
media systems may result in termination of the
relationship.
Ending a relationship in the social media envi-
ronmentcanbedonewithoutmucheortor
personal involvement. Yet the reasons to end a
relationship in the virtual space are oen less
likely to relate to conicts between relationship
partners. Conicts over personal disposition (e.g.,
one of the parties being inconsiderate) or specic
behaviors (e.g., being late) may matter less in
social media systems, while too much interaction
canbeperceivedasdisturbingandresultin
a relationship being dissolved. Individuals are
also more likely to formally end a relationship
because of the information overload caused by
a partner’s extensive communication activities,
such as a constant stream of Twitter messages
or Facebook postings. Under these conditions,
the individual wants the stream of uninteresting,
boring, or otherwise undesirable communication
to stop and achieves this by withdrawing from
the relationship.
Social media systems provide features that
support withdrawing by reducing interaction fre-
quency, changing security and visibility features
fortherelevantperson,orblockingtheperson
completely (Wisniewski, Lipford, & Wilson,
2012). Social media enabled relationships can
also be ended by removing the other party from
the explicit records of one’s contacts. Whether
this change is reported broadly depends on the
system and the types of relationships it supports.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND RELATIONSHIPS 11
In some cases,such as Facebook’s somewhat noto-
rious “relationship status,” changes are broadcast
widely. In others, such as Skype, removing a
person from one’s contact list does not trigger a
noticationtotheremovedindividual.
Social media systems allow ending a rela-
tionship in a nuanced manner, making the
termination less confrontational and less stressful
emotionally for the relationship partners. Instead
of removing a contact as a Facebook friend, indi-
viduals can increase the social distance between
themselves and the other person by restrict-
ing the amount of information visible to them.
Again, it would not be detectable for the removed
partner that the relationship is being weakened.
If a user chooses not to keep the relationship
dissolution private, social media systems also
allow communication of the change.
Social media are a diverse collection of tech-
nologies and applications that allow individuals
to communicate, exchange information, and
share digital artifacts with one another. ese
basic capabilities can be appropriated to support
many dierent types of relationships. Whether
creating substitute relationships, enabling new
types of relationships, or complementing exist-
ing relationships, social media systems are
important inuences on the way people and
organizations relate to one another in all spheres
of life.
SEE ALSO: Blogging; ICT and Gender; Iden-
tity and Agency; Impression Management in
Social Media; Microblogs; Mobile Lifestyles in
the Business World; Online Consumer Behav-
ior; Online Games, Casual; Online Games and
Children; Online Games, Community Aspects
of; Online Games, Cooperation and Competition
in; Online Games, Player Experiences in; Privacy
and Social Media; Professional Gaming; Social
Media; Social Media and Activism; Social Media
and Youth
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Brian S. Butler is a professor in the College of
Information Studies and in the Robert H. Smith
School of Business at the University of Maryland
where he is Director of the Master of Information
Management Program and Director of the Center
for the Advanced Study of Communities and
Information. His work, which has appeared in
Information Systems Research,MIS Quarterly,
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the way teams, communities, and organizations
function.
Sabine Matook is a senior lecturer in information
systems at the UQ Business School, University
of Queensland. She received her doctoral degree
from the Technische Universität Dresden, Ger-
many. Her research interests focus on the IT
artifact, social media, and agile IS develop-
ment. Her work has appeared in the European
Journal of Information Systems,Information &
Management,Journal of Strategic Information
Systems,International Journal of Operations &
Production Management,andDecision Support
Systems. She has presented research papers at a
variety of international conferences. Her teaching
areas include systems analysis and design, man-
agement information systems, and IS research
methodologies.
... A social network is a set of individuals or organizations linked by their social relationships (e.g. friendship, memberships or transactions) of a specific type (Butler and Matook 2015). SM networks are a special form of social network typically facilitated through the Internet (Kane et al. 2014). ...
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