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Antoci, A., Sabatini, F., Sodini, M. (2011). Bowling alone but tweeting together: the evolution of human interaction in the social networking era. Sapienza University of Rome, mimeo

The objective of this paper is to theoretically analyze how human interaction may evolve in a world characterized by the explosion of online networking and other Web-mediated ways of building and nurturing relationships. The analysis shows that online networking yields a storage mechanism through which any individual contribution - e.g. a blog post, a comment, or a photo - is stored within a particular network and ready for virtual access by each member who connects to the network. When someone provides feedback, for example by commenting on a note, or by replying to a message, the interaction is finalized. These interactions are asynchronous, i.e. they allow individuals to relate in different moments, whenever they have time to. When the social environment is poor of participation opportunities and/or the pressure on time increases (for example due to the need to increase the working time), the stock of information and ties stored in the Internet can help individuals to defend their sociability. Photo by Mitchell Joyce from Flickr.


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Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee, said Arianna Huffington, editor in chief and co-founder of The Huffington Post, the most popular American news website. Mr. Obama used the Internet to organize his supporters in a way that in the past would have required an army of activists and paid organizers on the ground. Through social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, he was able to mobilize thousands of people. The Obama campaign also caused a sea change in fact-checking, with citizens using the Internet to prove a politician wrong and then using SNSs to alert their fellow citizens. But SNSs have not changed only political life. In the last five years, they have literally revolutionized our lives. Social networking has made it simpler to interact with others without the limitations of geography and lack of time. In this paper, consistent with results from recent studies in the fields of applied psychology and communication science, we argue that Web-mediated interaction can play a major role in the preservation and development of interpersonal relations (Subrahmanyam et al. 2008; Park et al. 2009; Matzat 2010; Pénard and Poussing 2010; Bauernschuster et al. 2011; Gil de Zúñiga et al. 2011).

Participation through online networks can help individuals to maintain their social contacts from distant locations, for example after a transfer due to work commitments (Cummings et al. 2006; Ellison et al. 2007; 2011). Moreover, Web-mediated interaction is less sensitive to a reduction in leisure time caused by an intense pace of work. Facebook and Twitter allow users to stay in touch with their friends and acquaintances during coffee breaks or while waiting for the train. Online social participation favours asynchronous interactions which allow individuals to compensate for the lack of time: one can benefit from the others' participation, for example by reading a message or a note, even if the person who wrote it is currently offline. It is noteworthy that asynchronous interactions are not necessarily of inferior quality compared to simultaneous, face-to-face, interactions. Experiments found that the depth of a friendship can be significantly improved by computer-mediated communication. Apparently, by way of online relationships individuals become far better in expressing their true selves and feelings (Ellison et al. 2007; Park et al. 2009b; Burke et al. 2010; Sheldon 2010; Burke and Settles 2011). Interactions through the Internet can foster the social inclusion of individuals suffering from social anxiety, i.e. anxiety about social situations, interactions with others, and being evaluated by others (Caplan 2007; Steinfield et al. 2008). Thanks to new tools such as Facebook messages and Flickr mails, many people have regained the habit of writing letters. Psychological studies claim this form of interaction can lead to an improvement in the quality of relationships. Letters have in fact been found to have the property of slowing the communication down, thus giving people more time and reasons to process their feelings, to put a greater effort into understanding others’ expectations, and to think in depth before they respond (Kobayashi and Ikeda 2008; Miyata and Kobayashi 2008; Steinfield et al. 2008).

In addition to the preservation of existing ties, interaction through SNSs can foster the creation of new relations. Everyday life experience shows that a rising number of Internet users are forming closer relationships with individuals they first met online. Some SNSs serve the explicit purpose of favouring physical encounters between members. For example, Academia.edu was conceived to make authors meet and work together on new projects, LinkedIn aims to foster a better matching between workers and employers in the job market, and Meetic is now a reference point for individuals aiming to build a romantic relationship.

Last but not least, Web-mediated interaction contributes to the building of what has been called Internet social capital, i.e. the accumulation of a stock of knowledge, information and trust within virtual networks (Gaudel and Peroni 2008; Vergeer and Pelzer 2009; Chaim and Gandal 2010; Gaudel et al. 2010; Matzat 2010; Antoci et al. 2011a) [1].

The phenomena briefly described above suggest that the Internet can help mitigate the decline in social participation which has been documented in a number of empirical studies (Paxton 1999, Putnam 2000, Robinson and Jackson 2001, Costa and Kahn 2003, Bartolini et al. 2011). From this point of view, social participation through the Internet could be considered as a defensive behaviour, which allows individuals to protect their relationships from increasing time pressures and from the possible decrease in the probability of in-person encounters offered by the social environment physically surrounding the individual (Antoci et al. 2011a). The spread of this mode of participation can lead to second-best scenarios, in the case that face-to-face interaction is socially optimal. However, as shown in Antoci et al. (2011b), it may prevent the economy from falling into a social poverty trap.

The objective of this paper is to theoretically analyze how human interaction may evolve in a world characterized by the explosion of online networking and other Web-mediated ways of building and nurturing relationships.

To reach this goal, we build a theoretical framework where agents can develop their social interactions through two different strategies: 1) A social networking strategy (hereafter SN), within which social participation takes place both by means of online networking and face-to-face interaction. For example, when they are too busy to arrange physical encounters, individuals playing SN stay in touch with their relatives and friends through SNSs, but they meet them in person every time they can. 2) A face-to-face strategy (hereafter FF), which does not encompass social interaction through the Internet.

The analysis shows that Web-mediated interaction yields a storage mechanism through which any individual contribution - e.g. a blog post, a comment, or a photo - is stored within a particular network and virtually ready for use to each member who connects to the network. When someone provides feedback, for example by commenting on a note, or by replying to a message, the interaction is finalized. These interactions are asynchronous, i.e. they allow individuals to relate in different moments, whenever they have time to (e.g. in the night, just before going to sleep). When the social environment is poor in opportunities for participation and/or the pressure on time increases (for example due to the need to increase working hours, the social capital stored in the Internet can help individuals to defend their sociability. In other words, the relative performance of the two strategies of participation is influenced by the rise in the pressure on time. Social interaction through the Internet can thus help protect the relational sphere of individuals' lives from space and time constraints. Since the consumption of relational goods has been found to exert a significant influence on happiness (Gui and Sugden 2005; Becchetti et al. 2008; Bruni and Stanca 2008; Becchetti and Degli Antoni 2010), our results suggest that, under certain conditions, Internet usage can support well-being by counterbalancing the effects of time pressure on mental distress and the disruption of social ties. This result is consistent with recent empirical findings showing the existence of a significant and positive correlation between Internet usage and happiness (Pénard et al. 2011; Sabatini 2011).

Our work has relevant theoretical and policy implications. First, we provide theoretical research with a logical framework for analyzing the relationship between web-mediated communication, the evolution of human interaction and the accumulation of social capital. Second, the analysis is also related to the literature on the digital divide (Goldfarb and Prince 2008; Agarwal et al. 2009; Drouard 2010). If the adoption of the SN strategy can support happiness through engagement in social activities, then Internet users could increase their subjective well-being compared to non-users, especially when the pressure on time increases. As recently remarked by Pénard et al. (2011) and Sabatini (2011), high income individuals tend to be happier and to use the Internet more than low income people. Thus, the digital divide may increase existing inequalities in subjective well-being. From the policy point of view, this suggests that the reduction in the digital divide could be an effective measure to contain inequalities in the distribution of well-being.

The remainder of the paper is as follows: in the next section we review the social science literature on the role of SNSs in the evolution of social interaction. In section three we present our framework. Section four discusses the implications of this framework. The paper is closed by a few concluding remarks and considerations for further studies.

[1] In addition to SNSs, the accumulation of information seems to be particularly evident in sites such as Tripadvisor and Zagat, where users review their experience with hotels, restaurants, airlines and travel agencies with no self-interested purposes may be able to nurture the diffusion of trust in strangers among travellers. However, it is noteworthy that the usefulness of online networks in the diffusion of information and trust has been questioned for groups where members are anonymous and their tastes are actually unknown (see for example Demange (2010). Penard (2011) finds that reputation feedback systems significantly improve the diffusion of trust in e-marketplaces, but are vulnerable to strategic ratings and reciprocation.


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Antoci, Angelo

Angelo Antoci's articles from Ideas Antoci, Angelo & Galeotti, Marcello & Russu, Paolo, 2011. "Poverty trap and global indeterminacy in a growth model with open-access natural resources," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 146(2), pages 569-591, March. [...

Sabatini, Fabio

I am Associate Professor of Economics at the Department of Economics and Law of Sapienza University of Rome, where I currently teach Economics and Policy of Networks, Applied Economics and Public Economics. I collaborate with the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research of the Higher School of...

Sodini, Mauro

Mauro Sodini is Assistant Professor in Mathematics at the Dipartimento di Statistica e Matematica Applicata all'economia of the University of Pisa. He is member of the Faculty of Economics. His recent working papers include: Gori, Luca & Sodini, Mauro, 2011. "Nonlinear dynamics...

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