How adolescents use fast-paced communication to form relationships

By Guest Author Katie Weltner

From Marc_Smith's photostream via Flickr

Technology affects children at increasingly younger ages, and I have often wondered at how immediate and constant interaction alters the formation and maintenance of friendships, and how their friendships will differ from the older, more traditional (re: face-to-face) way of communicating.

Three Indiana University professors studied 40 seventh grade students (ages 11-13) to see if the students created more, but weaker relationships, and to learn the extent that technological communication was valuable for less social students. With the abundance of online friendship networks, it seems plausible that many students would communicate more often with less-close friends, yet this data indicates otherwise.

They write that the number of relationships students identified as “close” showed “no significant difference in relational intensity” as with the number of friends with whom the students communicated through socially interactive technologies (SITs), meaning the students did not have more friends online than offline. However, the study also found that the 10% of students who said they had “few” or “no” close friends used SITs to communicate with acquaintances, as opposed to close friends. This divergence can possibly be explained through an understanding that the majority of students hold “in-depth” conversations, presumably with closer friends, in person or on the telephone. Additionally, with friends identified as “close”, many students only used SITs as basic maintenance and making plans.

Ultimately, all relationships differ. Some students with strong friendships rarely communicate with SITs, while others often do, and the students used “different SITs with different friends.” One aspect of this is that many of these students only had access to one SIT, while others had access to none, which would alter the form of communication with both players in the friendship. In addition, some relationships simply may be stronger through certain modes of communication than others.

Since 2006 when this article was published,  the usage of IMing has increased. What has not possibly changed? In this article nearly all communication through SITs was between those the students who had met before, and that the students were not using the internet to develop new friendships, a trend I hope will continue.

One of the interesting things to note about the technological world is the abundance of accessible information. Websites such as Facebook allow friends, acquaintances and complete strangers to see equal amounts of information about the user. Acquaintances can suddenly learn a surprising deal about someone they just met, and can instantly judge whether or not to pursue the relationship. This instantaneous selection process can affect the way children learn to deal with bad situations and relationships in their lives. For those primarily developed before the rush of technological communication, it is important to note how a slightly younger generation will relate to those around them throughout their entire lives.

Bryant, J., Sanders-Jackson, A., & Smallwood, A. (2006). IMing, text messaging, and adolescent social networks. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, 577-592.

College Love: Uncertainty & Satisfaction in Long Distance Dating Relationships

By Guest Author Kasie Tanabe

Going on into my third year in a long distance dating relationship, I can attest to the important role of active of maintenance in keeping a fulfilling relationship. However, I was unaware of just how closely linked satisfaction is to communication strategies and their feelings on the relationship’s future.

Surveying 186 college students in long distance dating relationships (LDDRs), Maguire looked the following subjects:
• Certainty/uncertainty of reuniting in the same city – how this affected the overall relationship satisfaction
• Relationship-enhancing/distancing communicative coping strategies – which of the two are more helpful for people in LDDRs with an uncertain and certain future
• Convergent/divergent situations – how satisfaction differs for those in convergent (high probability of a favored outcome) and divergent (low probability of a favored outcome) situations, and what communicative coping strategies work best

Maguire’s results generally strengthened existing theories regarding certainty and its positive effects on maintenance and communicative coping strategies. However, people who were comfortable with their future prospects (whether it be certain or uncertain) showed greater overall relationship satisfaction. In addition, maintenance and relationship-enhancing coping strategies were more clearly associated with relationships of reduced uncertainty.

Therefore, it should not be assumed that uncertainty will always prove problematic for LDDRs. Uncertainty management theory (UMT) offers one perspective on this issue; it recognizes that not all uncertainty is negative. In some situations, certainty may be problematic, especially if the sure future involves an undesirable outcome. It is not true that if a couple is uncertain or moderately uncertain of reuniting, then they necessarily are unsatisfied and have more distress.

Miss You (from doug88888)Maintenance strategies say a lot about a relationship as well. A commitment to a future together brings about an increased amount of openness, cooperativeness, joint-problem solving, and assurances, as more importance is placed on maintaining the relationship in hopes of making it last. But no matter the case, as the study and I both suggest, keep withdrawal and verbal attacks to a minimum. No matter the certainty or satisfaction level, all participants felt these to be harmful and unhelpful coping strategies.

Finally, another important aspect of LDDRs is idealization. This occurs often, as idealized images may arise through restricted communication. One partner is allowed to see only what the other wants them to see; it is easier in LDDRs to leave out unfavorable information. This ultimately heightens satisfaction levels.

Maguire, K. (2007). “Will it ever end?”: A (re)examination of uncertainty in college student long-distance dating relationships. Communication Quarterly, 415-432.

Final Thoughts from SXSW

SXSW was exhausting, fast, and fun. Most academics really miss the bleeding edge of technology, and with good reason (they are trapped in often antiquated systems that can slow down publication and dissemination of articles, though I have experienced some improvement in this vein over the years). Here are a few of my final thoughts:

  • The parties were everything I heard they would be. Rather than hopping, I tended to stay in one place each night. To my mind, this led to less eternal queuing (I heard two hours at one point for the PBS party), and I think one of the great lessons in life is to be happy right where one is. And with the Walkmen playing at the DiggNation party on Saturday night, I felt no need to leave (though I heard amazing things about the frog design party, which featured vodka and corn dogs). I had a cool exchange with someone about how his company uses qualitative research, and how that compares with some of the expectations in quantitative research; tremendous learning occurred amidst the product demonstrations and frivolity.
  • After spending several hours Sunday afternoon at the Social Media Club House (see picture of the view from the backyard), the PBS event ended a nice day. It had the ingredients of a perfect party–great Tex-Mex, margaritas, excellent music from Band of Skulls and Nicole Atkins, a historical location (the ACL Studios), and it was in the college of my alma mater (Hook ‘Em!). Other than not having my wife alongside me, it was bliss.

  • Panel highlights included the “Is there too much math in marketing” debate Tuesday morning. The pro- and con- advocates kept the tone light, but made their points. Ultimately, I felt they were saying the same thing—know the questions before you look at the data. For the pro-math camp, this resulted in tighter and more leveled/meaningful metrics. For the creative- camp, this resulted in using math (really to test the effectiveness of ideas born out of radical and bold notions. Of course, I think they meant statistics when they mentioned math, but maybe that distinction is meaningless to non-academic folks. A panel on “Rebranding the Republican Party” provided an interesting history on the evolution of a website and the brand evolving around it. A fellow tweeter summarized the most quixotic feature about the panel: “If I hear the phrase ‘Leadership of the Chairman’ again, I’m going to start looking for signs in Mandarin.”
  • I found it easy to meet people, which is good since I knew few at SXSW beforehand. Certainly there were people who seemed to run in cliques (maybe in that large of a crowd high-school tendencies can’t help but emerge), but I think I did a good job staying outside of my comfort zone.  I met an diverse array of self-made folks, sharp folks snatched up by top agencies and corporations, and folks who effortlessly evolved through different businesses in perhaps the fastest-moving field in human-kind. In one instance, I wound up on a bus next to the CEO of HootSuite, and got some ideas on how I could use it for my social media class. While waiting for a Microsoft party, one of the first 2000 of Google’s employees showed me how to update the features on my Android phone. And Conan O’Brien showed up on stage at Stubb’s Barbeque to announce a new television deal. This last thing may have only existed as a really great Twitter prank; I suppose you had to be there…

Why the Twitter keynote at SXSW failed

For my second dispatch from SXSW (filed from a plane somewhere over Amarillo), I wanted to offer my thoughts on the keynote interview with Twitter’s Evan Williams, which has already achieved notoriety.

So why did it fail?

First, it failed expectations: the keynote room must hold 4,000 people. It filled up, and the overflow room that must have held another 1500 was as well. That leads to a certain feeling of hype tough to meet. It didn’t. And the big announcement at the beginning, which was somewhat newsworthy, was presented in an almost laconic fashion.

Second, it failed as a format. For a crowd that large, you need energy and movement. To relax on a black chair and sit cross-legged swigging from a water bottle is never a good idea talking to a group that large. I heard from another conference attendee that SXSW always utilizes this format for one of the keynotes. I would recommend not doing so, and for a free badge for next year, I would happily advise the SXSW organizers of that opinion. Save that format for a smaller panel. This same attendee watched the interview in the overflow room, and he felt it wasn’t so bad (perhaps it worked better as TV?)  He also had seen Evan speak before, and described him as effective.

Of course, the interviewer (Harvard Business Review’s Umair Haque) himself failed. As an interviewer, your job is to make the subject interesting. The best (Charlie Rose, Craig Ferguson) bring out what makes that person unique, and allow them the space to shine and interject when needed. Haque discussed himself too much, forgot he wasn’t the star, had too monotone of a delivery style, and lobbed softball questions. My sense is that he is intelligent, but this did not come through (and he recognized his weakness as an interviewer on his blog). I feel bad for him as he has taken an Internet beating (including my ever-important one, though I hope I have offered constructive comments). Ironically, the previous session I attended addressed the issue of proper interviewing. As Nancy Baym (that session’s moderator) told me via Twitter later, if she had given her talk after the session, she would have simply said “don’t do that. ok, bye.”

And finally, it failed to be interesting (see softball questions noted above). I was among the early leavers, as I had trouble twittering the speech due to a bad connection (I did commiserate with my friend Jason via text). I wanted also to see what the overflow room looked like. Allegedly by the interview’s end the hall looked maybe half-filled, though with the bright lights and darkened audience, the presenters had no idea of what had happened until afterward.

What succeeded? The massive power of back channel communication, which emanated, of course, from Twitter. There were some massively funny tweets. My two favorites? 1) @ev spoke of windows and doors. Fortunately for those attending, there were none of the former and plenty of the latter (paraphrased), and 2) “This @ev Keynote provides much needed mental rest for #sxsw attendees. Almost a Buddhist retreat.” It was the equivalent of the creator of FourSquare getting stalked at the grocery store where he holds the honorary title of “mayor.”

In retrospect, I wish I had written funnier tweets, but as someone who often speaks in public over nine hours a week, I felt wary of being a snarky audience member. I still keep danah boyd’s account of this happening to her in mind, and it scares me. The geek culture makes snap decisions (see The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy), perhaps as a result of the amount and speed of the information they put themselves they absorb. The potential power of Twitter and whatever lies next lurks.

SXSW through Saturday early afternoon

Greetings from Austin, the capitol of everything, and even more so during SXSW.

This is my first time at the interactive section of the conference, though I have done the music side before (1991, 1993, 1999, 2002).I have met lots of great folks, both entrepreneurs and small businesses from the Portland scene as well folks as from large companies such as Google, HP, Frito Lay, the University of Maryland’s medical school, GSD&M, Intel, Wieden + Kennedy, and others. I am connecting the threads of what I see happening here with my research on social media over the last fifteen years. I also learned what an information architect does.

What are people talking about? Glad you asked…

  • Social media marketing panel on first day had an overflow audience. Lots of folks who desire answers when they need to start with questions. Not that I know what was actually said in there, seeing as I had to go to a panel next door on using blogs and twitter to find deals (hint: Groupon). Also (and this makes total sense), retweets carry more currency than tweets. A panelist in another session said they were worth 18X the currency of the original tweet.
  • A panel promoting Brian Solis’ new book featured high-powered special guests including Jeremiah Owyang, Frank Eliason (Comcast Cares), and Dennis Crowley (FourSquare). I liked Solis as a speaker, and was intrigued that he seemed to utilize a mode of speaking designed for soundbites, or to put it in 2010 vernacular, Tweets. I couldn’t detect the primary argument (buy the book perhaps?), but was enthralled by the stream through which he paddled.
  • Panel on crowdsourcing distinguished between crowd and community. The former has a common purpose, but features interpersonal isolation. The latter has a purpose as well, but is sustainable.
  • The future of influence featured four panelists weighing in on the truth or bull of a series of statements such as “The value of influence is clear” and “The role of ‘expert’ is dead.”
  • danah boyd gave the keynote on privacy versus publicity.  She used two recent corporate failures (Google Buzz and Facebook privacy settings of December 2009) to explicate what people expect in the way of privacy. I was struck by the generational challenges– parents today have no reference point to what their kids deal with on the Internet; there is no “back in my day” that you can say to them.  And whereas parents look at SM for what they can lose, teens look at it for what they can gain.

Right now LLCoolJ is promoting Boomdizzle via a Skype conference right next to me. The guy setting up the conference called him Todd (his real name) when they conversed one-on-one (outside of the view of most people). If I were a rapper, I would insist everyone call me by my rap name, FiveBall ThugR.

An alternative to starting relationship repair with communication?

By Guest Author Ashley Tiongson

After ending a two year relationship, I thought of being a marriage therapist. As a hopeless romantic, I read countless self-help books on relationships and marriages in hopes of sustaining a lifelong commitment someday. Within the books, chapters were often dedicated to teaching communication techniques that should be executed before seeking professional help. In a recent article,  Sheras and Koch-Sheras offer an interesting alternative to this notion.

According to Sheras and Koch-Sheras, many therapists teach communication techniques to couples when beginning treatment. Using this approach, some couples have shown that prematurely learning those communication skills can lead to more harm than good. The communication they are taught prematurely may increase the anger and the conflict that the couples came to therapy for in the first place.

Instead, the authors argue, couples should envision themselves and act as if they are a “we”, versus entering therapy with individual agendas for the relationship. Once they establish a mutual committed entity, couples should follow the Couple Power model of treatment (CPT)- Commitment, Cooperation, Communication and Community, in that order, while postponing the teaching of communication skills until later in therapy. Upon successful completion, couples can then learn effective communication skills that will benefit them maximally.

The Four C’s of CPT:

  • Commitment: Couples must create a commitment by shifting the focus from their individual needs and problems to what works for the couple as a whole. Within this phase, couples must envision what the relationship they have committed to working together would look like if they could have what they wanted. Once that vision is reached together, they are to establish a commitment to the vision of the couple entity while keeping in mind they must maintain this commitment throughout the process.
  • Cooperation: The very essence of cooperation asks that the individual commits to their partnership to produce a joint effort to work as a team to realize and manifest their shared vision. The couples draft an “emotional contract” that focuses on creating something together that is fulfilling and beautiful to both.
  • Communication: With the successful completion of the first two C’s, couples start realizing that clear communication is crucial for their success. Good communication such as dedicated listening, fair fight training, and careful observation lead to couples being understood completely. When the partners feel acknowledged, there is less resistance in therapy, thus accelerating them to the last step.
  • Community: By this time, a “new” couple emerges that is full of potential. Community refers to creating a supportive environment that can consist of other peers in healthy relationships, family, parents, and even children. By having this support system, couples may benefit from advice and wisdom from these model couples. Most importantly, it gives couples consistent support to keep up and nurture their lasting commitment.

[Editor's note: I should point out that Steps 1 and 2 can not be accomplished without a bit of communication training, so there is a small if inherent contradiction to this path. Of course, I will admit readily and freely my personal bias to starting with communication!]

Sheras, P., Sheras P. (2008). Commitment first, communication later: Dealing with barriers to effective couples therapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 38(3), 109-117.

Good Relationship Management Causes Partners to Perform Better at Home and Work

By Guest Author Hillary White

Many companies today do not take a particular interest in the well-being of its employees. However, if a company spent resources on relationship management programs, recent evidence indicates that both the employee and the company benefit in the long run.

Schaer, Bodenmann, and Klink suggest that experiences at the workplace and couple’s life are closely connected to each other and that unresolved stress in one domain affects the other domain in a significant manner. This means that stress in a person’s work has a negative effect on that person’s home life, and stress at home has a negative effect in a person’s work. Stress from one area tends to spillover into the other area. Parents who are overwhelmed at work tend not to be as good of parents as those who are not under the same stress. Conversely, people under stress at home tend to perform at a lower quality at work.

The authors tested the theory on 157 couples. The couples were split into three conditions/groups: Couples Coping Enhancement Training, an individual-oriented coping intervention, and a control group. Each training session totaled 15 hours over one weekend.

The authors suggest that companies should invest more in the well-being of the relationship of their employees in order to improve the success of the company overall. If a company spends time and money on relationship maintenance programs, then employees will perform better at work. The authors’ study suggests that Couples Coping Enhancement Training is the best program for companies to use. Couples Coping Enhancement Training is a preventative intervention that teaches couples how to cope with stress together and individually. This method is shown to be more successful than an individual coping method. Couples Coping Enhancement Training has shown to improve relationship quality. Couples who participate in Couples Coping Enhancement Training show a greater increase in communication skills and the ability to cope with stress together.

The authors advocate that if companies provide Couples Coping Enhancement Training to its employees, then productivity of employees will greatly improve. Most companies today do not take an interest in the personal lives and relationships of its employees. However, the findings suggest that companies which do take measures to ensure the success and well-being of employee relationships outperform companies that do not.

Schaer, M., Bodenmann, G., & Klink, T. (2008). Balancing work and relationship: couples coping enhancement training (CCET) in the workplace. Applied Psychology: An International Review , 57, 71-89.

The pervasive power of the picture

In the olden days of the Internet, people commonly communicated with people who they had not seen. Now, our images typically appear over the Internet in multiple places.

One of the most nerve-wracking decisions people make when managing their online presence involves the selection of their image(s). And just like in our non-virtual lives, people make a lot of attributions about our appearance.

In a future study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers at Sonoma State University tweaked the poses of undergraduates from formal to spontaneous, and used these to gauge how accurate the attributions of personality behaviors were. They found some not-so-surprising results:

In the new study, 12 observers looked at full-body photos of 123 undergraduate students who they had never met before. Six observers viewed the students in a neutral pose and six saw the same students in a spontaneous pose.

The participants rated each photo on 10 personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness (open to experience), likability, self-esteem, loneliness, religiosity and political orientation.

To figure out accuracy of the judgments, the researchers compared the results with the posers’ self-ratings and ratings from three close friends.

For the controlled poses, the observers accurately judged extraversion and self-esteem. When participants looked at the naturally expressive shots, which revealed dynamic non-verbal cues, they were nearly spot-on, getting nine out of the 10 traits correct (everything but political orientation).

One more piece of the puzzle connecting online and offline use and behaviors

As a person who does not have any children, I stand amazed at how many things parents have to worry about, and how impactful the behaviors that parents enact within the family can transfer to their children in a plethora of ways.

In a survey of 417 college students, Ledbdetter looked at the interrelationships between four main concepts:

  • conversation orientation–how open the climate of communication is, and how encouraged the family members feel to talk about a large range of topics
  • conformity orientation– how homogeneous the attitudes, values, and beliefs that the family maintains in its communication)
  • relationship maintenance behaviors-the actions the family members engage in to keep the relationship in existence, which he then parsed into online and offline behaviors
  • Friendship closeness

Using theories that describe how behavior modeling constitutes a primary factor in the socialization of how people communicate with others, his results provide further support for these notions. Strong conversation orientation predicted the use of both online and offline relational maintenance behaviors. Further, the use off offline relationship maintenance behaviors served as a mediating behavior between conversation orientation and friendship closeness (but interestingly online maintenance behaviors did not).

So, if interested in helping their children establish close friendships outside of the family, parents should strive to maintain a climate of open discussions with their children. Likewise, research has indicated that children in families with a high conformity orientation have trouble adjusting to major life changes such as college. Children developing and learning some intellectual flexibility is key, both in listening to information, but also in forming tactful messages to others.

Obviously, parents interested in never having their children leave their house should practice the conformity orientation.

On the technology front these findings provide support for research that myself and others have conducted that look at the impact of the medium, though my hunch is that over the next thirty or so years these effects will dissipate somewhat. Online relationships perform similarly to offline relationships if the online relationships have time to develop, and this could also explain why conformity relationships were found to be related to online maintenance behaviors but not offline behaviors; perhaps this lack flexibility is masked when one has a tighter control over the interaction. Online maintenance in concert with offline maintenance is strongly related to friendship closeness.

Ledbetter, A. M. (2009). Family communication patterns and relational maintenance behavior: Direct and mediated associations with friendship closeness. Human Communication Research, 35, 130-147.

What to study when the Internet disappears

I have long taken the view that the most effective and timeless perspective to studying technology is to look the human aspects of it, and think that I can make the claim that my research on the Internet has stood the test of time as a result of this philosophy.

Malcolm Parks ponders how we will study the Internet when it “disappears,” when its ubiquity is pervasive to the point that we can no longer parse out any direct effects. Today, the Internet is no longer this separate “thing” that people go to, but rather exists all around us in multiple forms (SMS, i-phones, e-mails, Twitters, etc…). Freshmen entering college accept this pervasive technology as part of their lives; it has always been there. But in the meantime, it exists, and people today are dealing with unique communication experiences. We do not know much about the effects of simultaneous media usage, nor how people manage it.

Parks proposes focusing on the underlying communication processes, as opposed to studying the “surface” technologies. Here is perhaps the biggest contribution that academics can make, delving deeply into theories of how people connect, and where the technologies intersect. To wit, “As Walther (in press) recently observed, CMC [computer-mediated communication] research has not yet adequately addressed underlying assumptions, has failed to develop typologies that would allow meaningful comparison of technologies, failed to articulate boundary conditions for theoretic perspectives, and, in too many cases, has devoted inadequate attention to underlying explanatory mechanisms.” Another opportunity is to track how people’s behavior has evolved as a result of technology over time.

Although these things do not receive much play from non-academic research, a growing number of Internet watchers emphasize that when looking at “social media,” it is the “social” that should stay at the forefront. And here is one place to start that investigation.

Parks, M. (2009). What Will We Study When the Internet Disappears? Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 14, 724-729.