Can Social Media Build Deep Relationships?

As we increase the number of communication interactions taking place online, it becomes increasingly important not to ignore the indispensable practices that are foundational to building meaningful relationships.

One of the most overstated goals of social media is to make us more connected. The limits of who and when we can communicate are more fluid than ever in history. Because of modern inventions like the smartphone, messaging platforms, and social media platforms, everyone you have ever known is only a few clicks away. However, studies on social media and its effect on society are numerous and often negative. Many of these studies link social media to anxiety, poor sleep quality, low self-esteem, inattention, depression, and loneliness (Mammoser 2018).

Even still, social media is now an integral part of our lives, and this is unlikely to change. In the age of social media, in order to build and maintain deep relations, users must look at the way these relationships are built offline and find ways to integrate these communication strategies into to their online relationships.

It is quite the conundrum — we have hundreds or thousands of our “closest” friends at our fingertips, but we still experience constant feelings of loneliness. It is especially puzzling when we remember that social media aspires to make up more connected. These feelings of isolation can be credited largely both to the nature of the relationships we build on social media and the fact that they differ from the way that relationships have been traditionally built. A notable difference between online and traditional relationships is what communication scholars refer to as the practice of disclosure.

At first glance, it seems almost contradictory. We disclose everything on the internet — our dinners, our pets, even our most embarrassing moments. If self-disclosure increases feelings of closeness and trust, why do our online relationships not yield these positive benefits? The answer lies in the nature of these disclosures and the crucial ways that social media relationships differ from real intimate relationships.

Disclosure is the practice of revealing personal or intimate information about oneself to others. As a phenomenon, it was first studied by the Canadian psychologist Sidney Jourard in 1971. Since then, disclosure has been studied extensively, and our understanding has evolved. We now know that there are varying levels of disclosure, and what we chose to self-disclose depends largely on our relationship with the person receiving the information. We also know that self-disclosure is linked to increased feelings of trust and liking between both the discloser and the receiver, and that disclosure from one person often encourages disclosure from the other. Effective disclosure increases connectedness but also requires a significant level of risk.

Natalya N. Bazarova and Yoon Hyung Choi (2014) of Cornell University write:

Disclosure fulfills fundamental needs for social connectedness and belonging and is intrinsically rewarding (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012), but it also carries inherent risks of vulnerability and information loss because a discloser gives up some degree of privacy and personal control by sharing information with others (Altman, 1975). Thus, disclosure decisions and strategies reflect a balance of conflicting needs aimed at maximizing strategic rewards and minimizing personal risks (Petronio, 2002). (p. 2)

In the context of social media, this process is significantly diminished if not lost completely. At first glance, it seems almost contradictory. We disclose everything on the internet — our dinners, our pets, even our most embarrassing moments. If self-disclosure increases feelings of closeness and trust, why do our online relationships not yield these positive benefits? The answer lies in the nature of these disclosures and the crucial ways that social media relationships differ from real intimate relationships.

As we become more involved in social media, building and maintaining deep relationships will still depend on our ability to effectively and intimately disclose and encourage others to do the same.

In real life, self-disclosure requires risk, and it is this risk that leads to reciprocity. The receiver of the disclosure acknowledges what is at stake when disclosing and often rewards the risk with a disclosure of their own. On social media, this risk is lost. Furthermore, due to the nature of social media, where messages can be edited and reviewed several times over before they meet the receiver, the authenticity can be lost.

Clara D. Costello (2018) of Cedarville University argues that even though social media relationships might generally become more intimate over time, “they can lack accuracy and truth within the communicated messages” (p. 48). Not to mention that social media disclosures are often aimed at no one in particular and often act more as branding exercises than actual attempts at building a relationship. This is to say, there is a critical difference between public communication and intimate communication.

One distinction is that in-person relationships often depend on symmetrical reciprocity whereas online relationships lack this due to the lack of clear purpose. Dr. Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D. writes

“Reciprocity must be in place for friendships to thrive and we must feel confident in a friend’s ability to return the favors that we provide for her if we are to stay invested in a friendship. Although lasting relationships are not built on a strict quid pro quo basis of even exchange, there is an expectation of a “give-and-take” interrelationship with our friends. This has been termed a symmetrical reciprocity and it is integral to any healthy relationship. Our expectation of reciprocity includes both communication behaviors and interactions.”

The limitations of social media do not mean that relationships built or maintained online cannot succeed. For all of its missing elements, social media does contain a positive aspect. People may sometimes feel more equipped to share their feelings behind the wall of social media, and doing so can lead to success in some social media relationships. Costello (2018) acknowledged this, saying, “Ultimately, social media relationships succeed when interpersonal partners are equipped to connect with others and share their feelings without the pressure of spontaneous responses or social ostracizing (Yang & Bradford Brown, 2016)” (p. 48). The diminished risk in many cases empowers people to disclose things that they would otherwise have been afraid to disclose.

In real life, self-disclosure requires risk, and it is this risk that leads to reciprocity. The receiver of the disclosure acknowledges what is at stake when disclosing and often rewards the risk with a disclosure of their own. On social media, this risk is lost.

As we become more involved in social media, building and maintaining deep relationships will still depend on our ability to effectively and intimately disclose and encourage others to do the same. To do so, we will need to be clear in our intent to build a relationship and clearly distinguish our communications, many of which will simply fall into the show-and-tell of social media. While less effective than real life, there may still be space online to have or preserve intimate relationships, but this process will require a strong level of trust and desire from both sides.

Communication scholars have studied the idea of building a deep and meaningful relationship for many years. Self-disclosure remains a fundamental element of the process. As we increase the number of communication interactions taking place online, it becomes increasingly important not to ignore the indispensable practices that are foundational to building meaningful relationships.

References

Bazarova, N. N. & Choi, Y. H. (2014) Self-disclosure in social media: Extending the functional approach to disclosure motivations and characteristics on social network sites. Journal of Communication, 1–23, https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.cornell.edu/dist/c/6136/files/2013/12/Self-Disclosure-in-social-media.pdf

Costello, C. D. (2018) “Hello? Are you still there?” The impact of social media on self-disclosure and reciprocity in interpersonal relationships: A literature review. Channels: Where Disciplines Meet, 2(2), 43–54. https://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1031&context=channels

Degges-White, S. (2018) “Self-Disclosure & Trust: Essential in Healthy Relationships.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/201805/self-disclosure-trust-essential-in-healthy-relationships.

Mammoser, G. (December 9 2018). The FOMO is real: How social media increases depression and loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/social-media-use-increases-depression-and-loneliness