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Monday, April 9, 2012

Social media is changing way we see
relationships – and a whole lot more

This week has been designated Social Media Week at the University of Kentucky – a week set aside to help students, staff and faculty increase their social media use and proficiency. Various groups around campus have collaborated to illustrate the value and flexibility of social media, expose and encourage students to continue to use social media, teach students how to manage an online identity, and demonstrate professional and conscientious social media practice.

By Megan McClain
University of Kentucky student

In a relationship. It’s complicated. Married. Engaged. Separated. Divorced. Single.

With the introduction of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social media websites – and the propensity to tell the world your relationship status – anyone and everyone now has the ability to know all about the status of an individual’s personal life.

In addition, the popularity of social media is changing the way people perceive relationships and in many ways altered them. It is rare to see a relationship untouched by the power of social media. Friendships, affairs, romantic relationships, reconnections and all other forms of contact could be made easier and more efficient with a couple spare minutes and the click of a mouse. Whether this a negative or positive change is the subject of much debate.

“I’m on Facebook and Twitter on my phone constantly, especially in class. I’m on my computer a lot after class and I always have Twitter and Facebook on a tab. If my account gets deleted I’d be so upset. That’s like my lifeline to everyone. Especially because I’m graduated, I like to keep up with people from home,” said Alexa Powell, a freshman studying psychology at the University of Kentucky.

On the other hand, Lindsey Dillingham, a graduate teaching assistant in the Division of Instructional Communication, an interdisciplinary division of instructional Communication in the College of Communications and Information Studies at the University of Kentucky, would not see much of a problem if her accounts were deleted.

“I have Facebook but it never really worked for me,” she said. “I hardly ever get on – it isn’t my thing. I think Twitter is better, Facebook is too time consuming, and I don’t like people posting pictures of me. Twitter is less time consuming and more funny. It is also less dramatic and sarcastic. However, if both were to be deleted I wouldn’t see that as a problem.”

The varieties of connections that are maintained and sparked by the easy access of typing in a name are plenty. The doors open for meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends and staying in touch with family members. Having such accounts can prove helpful if the user’s goal is to keep connected with others.

New guy at the office? No problem, become friends with the co-worker through Facebook. Kids at college? The parents can create an account and keep up with them by checking out photos, updates, email and chat. The possibilities are seemingly endless when it comes to finding ways to form or sustain relationships through social media.

Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and the author of “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” ponders social media’s effect on relationships.

“They’re based on the premise that you’re more likely to want to get to know people who know people you already know than all-out strangers. So rather than a dating site that just has people putting up profiles and trying to randomly match, what if you could put up profiles of people that had shared friends. Wouldn’t those be more likely to succeed?” Baym asks.

A lot of what society relies on when first being introduced to anyone is visual cues, facial expressions and tone of voice. The absence of such factors leads to negatives that are recognized by Sally Stich, author of the article “How Connected Are You” from Woman’s Day magazine.

“There’s no denying the drawbacks of technological relationships—images can be distorted, and words on a screen can be misinterpreted … Another problem: Electronic interaction isn’t always immediate or well-focused. It can take days to reply to an email, and everyone knows how easy it is to multi-task— responding to a message while also talking on the phone or doing something else. Face to face, you’d never deliberately divert your focus. And there is such a thing as being too connected. It also can lead to a sense of self-importance, and can disrupt your ability to focus since you’re constantly being interrupted.” Stich said.

Will the Internet and social media ever become a satisfactory replacement for human-to-human interaction? Probably not, but it just might serve as stepping stones to build larger relationships.

“Positively, it can enhance relationships because you can be together long distance. That can help if you have a boyfriend from home when you’re in college. I feel like there’s a lot more negative to it though. People can interfere with your relationship more online and you can become creepy and start stalking tweets and other posts.” Powell said.

Social media can help begin a conversation, yet what stems from that can be beneficial or just as easily turn sour. An effortless way of connecting could mean potential threats for friendships and relationships everywhere.

Behold the example of an ex in search of her long lost love. A “harmless” cup of coffee could turn into a complicated mess. Men’s Health reported that out of the 32 percent of women who have tried to reconnect with an ex on Facebook, 16 percent of them were in a relationship with a different person at the time. For men, 36 percent have tried, and 1 out of 5 of these men were in a relationship.

Men’s Health also states that 24 percent of people who don’t list their true relationship status so they can keep their “options” open or continue flirting with others, 70 percent of people who say they’ve used Facebook to flirt, 59 percent of people who say they’ve become jealous over their partner’s interactions with someone else on Facebook, 29 percent of people who say that a wall post or Facebook photo has gotten them in trouble with their significant other, and 5 percent of respondents who admit that they’ve cheated on their significant other in a way that involved Facebook.

Let’s take a moment to consider the “Friends” list: does anyone honestly say they have 600 friends? Generally, not many could truthfully answer yes to that question. With Facebook, it doesn’t matter if you want everyone to see that you are in a relationship or single, they are going to see it anyway. Rick Nauert, Ph.D., senior news editor of Psych Central and John M. Grohol, Psy.D., considers the pros and cons.

“What having a lot of weak-tie relationships is giving to you is access to a lot of resources that you wouldn’t otherwise have, because we do tend to cluster in relationships with strong ties to people that are pretty similar to ourselves. So they don’t necessarily know a whole lot that we don’t know. They haven’t necessarily been a lot of places that we haven’t been … there are all of these little bits of information and wisdom and social support that people can provide each other when they have a weak-tie relationship — and they can really open up access to resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise” Nauert and Grohol said.

Emotions, opinions and trust are subject to the inner critic within those “weak-tie” friends. This could lead to transform people into jealous, obsessed, anxious monsters. The spotlight shines bright on each social media user, and the pressure might be altering personalities as well as interactions. Social media could be keeping couples or friends from trusting each other because of how open all the information is.

It is undeniable that social media has power over relationships. That power is abused or helpful depending on the individual. The influence social media has over a person is up to them. It is clear that there are both positives and negatives to social media, and there are many factors involved.

“I believe the most positive impact comes to the people that are older, because once you graduate college it gets harder to stay in touch with people and Facebook and Twitter can help. Also it allows people to stay on top of the news, I see political benefits as well. However, Facebook and Twitter could also be used as a replacement for actual visits and conversations. Sometimes people know too much about others’ lives. For me, I think there are more negatives than positives.” Dillingham said.

Megan McClain is a journalism student at the University of Kentucky.