Brooke Foucault Welles has been invited to participate in the Doctoral Consortium of the Communication and Technology (CAT) at the International Communication Association (ICA) conference in Boston, MA on May 26, 2011. Brooke will be presenting her dissertation research on friendship networks in Second Life for feedback from a panel of esteemed faculty from across the field of communication (including SONIC’s own Noshir Contractor).
Dissertation Project Overview:
Friendships are among the most important relationships in an individual’s life. Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, friends take on ever-increasing importance, becoming the locus of significant social, emotional, and functional support. As online social media grow in popularity, the Internet is becoming increasingly involved in the formation and maintenance of friendships. Although research shows that individuals more frequently use the Internet to communicate with friends that they first met in the offline world, making new friends online is not uncommon. In a recent survey of adult Internet users in the US, 16% of respondents reported having made at least one friend online, amounting to approximately 25 million new Internet-based friendships in the US alone (Katz & Rice, 2009). Adolescents report having online friendships at similar rates, with approximately 14% of teens reporting having close friends that they know exclusively through online interactions (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003).
Despite a considerable amount of attention paid to online friendship in the Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC) literature, prior studies have largely focused on friendship at the individual or dyad level, using surveys or in-depth interviews to discover how individual dispositions or preferences lead to the emergence of friendships online (i.e. Livingstone & Bober, 2004; Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002 ; Wolak, et al., 2003). While such studies provide important foundational insight into the nature of online relationships, they only tell part of the story. Based on research conducted in the offline world, we know that friendship selection is not driven exclusively by individual preferences. Instead, individual preferences, dyadic pressures, and structural forces all work concurrently to shape and constrain how friendships emerge and develop over time (Cairns & Cairns, 1994).
The purpose of my dissertation research is to extend the existing body of literature by taking network analytic approach to understanding online friendship. I will apply Monge and Contractor’s (2003) multi-theoretical multilevel modeling approach to study the emergence of friendship ties between previously unacquainted users of the virtual world Second Life. In doing so, I will be able to compare the relative effects of individual, dyadic and structural-level forces on the processes of friendship selection online. Further, recognizing recent discussions about the inconsistencies between the way individuals understand online and offline friendship (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007), and because the limitations of quantitative network analysis do not allow for a deep understanding of why certain structural patterns emerge, I will supplement my quantitative studies with qualitative research conducted within Second Life with users of that virtual world. Together, these two approaches will offer a more complete picture of how and why online friendships form, and will lay the foundation for future discussions of the utility, stability and quality of these relationships.