Today, I’m returning to some of my earlier research roots by sharing a portion of a qualitative study that I’ve done on Facebook during my MA. Plus, I’m admittedly cheating myself out of a completely novel post since time is a little tight this week. Facebook, a seven-year-old start-up, born in a dorm room at Harvard, currently has over 800 million users (Facebook, 2012). With its staggering growth rate, Facebook is rapidly becoming the “Web’s dominant social ecosystem and an essential personal and business networking tool in much of the wired world” (Stone, 2009). Facebook thereby positions itself as a leader of interactive, participant-based online media, Web 2.0 media. Facebook promises to change how we communicate, in part by digitally mapping and linking peripatetic people across space and time. There is disagreement among scholars about whether the growing popularity of social media will lead to more diverse interactions online and offline, or rather causes contrary effects of increasingly homophilious online networks and relationships.
Wait … what the heck is homophily?
“Homophily” describes the tendency of individuals to associate only with like-minded people of similar age and ethnicity. Similarity breeds connection and people like to associate with others who are similar. Personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many socio-demographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics (McPherson et al., 2001). Homophily can limit our social world in a way that has powerful implications and consequences for the information we receive, attitudes we form, and interactions we experience. Prior to the new media revolution and Web 2.0 technology, the most basic source of homophily was space; we were more likely to have contact with those who were closer to us in geographic location than those who were distant.
Research Questions & Methodology
In my exploratory qualitative study, I aimed to investigate how the concept of homophily as a theoretical framework, taken out of its traditional interpersonal, face-to-face network context is evident in relationships and friendship lists on Facebook. The following research questions guided my inquiry:
• Does Facebook really run counter to the notion and results of 50 years of sociological research on homophily, or does it maintain and rather promote homophilious relations among its members in their social networks?
• What do these profiles tell us about users’ relationships and friendships with their added friends regarding gender, class, employment, family, education, and specifically ethnic and age diversity?
• What do members using chat functions, wall posts, or other applications available on Facebook reveal about their homophilious relations? Do users’ interests (e.g. movies, books, sports) match those of their friends and hence are commonalities displayed?
This study employed an exploratory qualitative content analysis. A purposive sampling strategy was hereby chosen due to the difficulties in obtaining an official user master list from Facebook and restricted privacy settings to gain access to a random sample. In the role of the complete participant, the researcher employed the account of ten Facebook users (3 males/7 females) who were volunteering to provide access to their profiles. We tried to have a good span of the average FB user (different ages, nationalities, etc). Exceptional for this study was the large number of out-of-college, adult users. This exploratory qualitative content analysis was employed to analyze friendship lists, profile information, messages, links, photos, and videos posted on Facebook users’ sites, providing insight into possible homophilious relationships. The official coding process took place in January 2010. In compliance with IRB rules, the ten people volunteering to access their profiles for the analysis were guaranteed complete confidentiality and anonymity. From each accessed account the first five percent (in alphabetical order) of profiles of that person’s Facebook friends were analyzed and coded for the qualitative content analysis, totaling 149 profiles. What follows is a brief discussion of some of my results.
Homophily on Facebook
Religious and Political Affiliations
Additionally, the content analysis revealed the lack of any political and/or religious information posted on profiles; it was rather common to find slightly humorous or sarcastic comments regarding politics and religious beliefs, such as “Unitarian universalist,” “Producing/Living in the Fullness,” or “Freedom, Justice, Peace.” This reluctance to share world views online is import to consider regarding issues of privacy in online environments. Keen (2008) befittingly emphasizes that the Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. However, “this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment” (Keen, 2008, p. 16).
Profiles accessed belonging to two lesbians were insightful regarding homophilious factors of sexual orientation. It became evident that users presumably belonging to the LGBT community were more reluctant to share their relationship status or gender interest on their profile than heterosexuals. Oftentimes the impression arose that several of the female friends analyzed had restricted privacy settings even for their added friends, or were in general refusing to share any information. In only one instance did a female friend express an explicit interest in another woman.
Frequently groups (Protest the Ban of Proposition 8, Adoption Rights for Same-Sex Partners), TV shows (The L-Word, or Queer as Folk), music (Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge), and fan pages (Ani DiFranco, The Ellen DeGeneres Show) joined were the only indicators of an assumed homosexual orientation for those users that did not provide any information regarding their relationship status or sexual orientation. This again is a crucial factor when considering Facebook users’ privacy settings and their comfort level of sharing very personal information in large online social networks. It further raises issues of (queer) identity construction in online environments.
Online Relationship Development and Maintenance
The true purpose of this content analysis was revealed as it provided an insight into the linkages and connection points of Facebook users’ (online) social network(s). Common “offline” connection points were usually fostered through the attendance of the same high school, college, or current working environment. Members did not make use of the availability of a wider spectrum of potential friends that might increase friendship diversity. This is also congruent with other research findings assuming that one’s existing offline network influences which social networking site one embraces (Steinfield et al., 2008). Social networking sites, as reinforced through this study, are used as a platform for forging predominantly pre-existing relationships. Online relationships develop in addition to, rather than instead of, physical face-to-face interactions. Therefore, the greatest effect and contribution of social networking sites lies in improving the ability of individuals to add to proximate relationships of “offline” social networks better-connected relationships with people who are currently geographically distant or who were part of their physical, social networks in a previous stage of their lives.
While SNSs are often designed to be widely accessible, many attract homogeneous populations initially. My exploratory qualitative content analysis revealed several commonalities and homophilious patterns regarding age, nationality, ethnicity, education, class, gender, common interests, as well as attitudes and behavior among the profile owners. Overall, these are socio-demographic factors which typically segment our society and limit people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications and consequences for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Hence, one is still very much able to gain insight on a persons’ character, simply by observing the friendships and relationships they maintain and engage in—“tell me what company thou keepst, and I’ll tell thee what thou art” (Miguel de Cervantes).
How about you log into your FB account right now and check your friends’ list; any assessments on the degree of homophily evident there?