and social networks are a pretty effective way to influence your friends.
Today’s New York Times article by John Markoff titled “Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Finds,” reveals the results of a study conducted on Facebook during the 2010 election. The study showed that a “get out the vote” message across the top of Facebook including photos of friends who had already voted was effective in getting people to vote (a control group proved that just a friendly reminder that it was election day was not enough). The study found that the most influential Facebook Friends are close friends. In addition, though not as significantly as close friends, the study also showed friends-of-friends to be influential in inspiring Facebook users to vote–described as the “social contagion effect“. What I find interesting about this study is how powerful the influence of friends must be on an individual. In this instance, seeing their picture and that they had voted motivated friends not just to click a link, but to get out of their chairs, outside, and to the voting booth.
What may be more interesting is that the study found 4% of those who claimed to have voted, actually had not. This fact reveals two things: first, how important it is to some people to feed into peer pressure and (at least appear to) do what their friends are doing; and second, the nonchalance with which people choose to misrepresent themselves on social networking sites. Do people lie so easily to their friends faces, without the shield of the internet to mediate? Further, voting shows a sense of social responsibility, so failing to vote and lying about it suggests a real deficit in social conscience.
Or are these users not really lying, since it is only on Facebook, and not actually “real life”? Maybe not in those users’ minds. However, I think the authors of the study, John Markoff, and especially Dr. David Beer would disagree. Unlike danah m. boyd and Nicole B. Ellison, Beer believes that Friends on social networking sites are as real as “real life” friends–that there is so much overlap in online Friends and real life friends, and that the culture of social networking sites has changed the way that many people meet and connect with other people to form friendships. Certainly, since Beer is the man making the assertions that online Friends and offline friends are one in the same, he would agree, but I do not think it far fetched to assume the study’s authors and the article’s author feel the same. Though they recognize “‘strong ties’ in cyberspace are more likely than ‘weak ties’ to influence behavior,” it is without a doubt that online friendships yield offline actions, and because of this, social networking sites have the power to influence users and prompt action unrelated to social network interactions.
Additionally, while this study could have shown that Facebook had a significant influence on its users if the control group without pictures of others claiming to have voted resulted in the same increase of voters, it found that the photos of others, especially friends and friends of friends, were the significant motivators for increased votes. This adds legitimacy to Beer’s assertion that friends and Friends are one in the same, and sets the tone for which Markoff can report and respond to the study’s findings. What the study really brings to light is that Facebook is influential to the offline lives of its users, but only by promoting social connections between them. This is precisely why Nancy K. Baym would most likely see “Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says,” as operating under many of the assumptions made by the “social shaping” social discourse. In fact, this study seems to prove that Facebook’s effect on society can be explained by social shaping. The article shows that this social networking site is responsible for tangible effects on society, however, those effects are only made possible by the human influence on the site. Had people chosen not to share whether or not they had voted, the results would have been drastically different. This study’s results prompted further research on how to potentially use Facebook to aid in weight loss, but as proven by this study, only the input of the users and the reception of other users to their friends’ activity will yield any real results.
With this in mind, I am interested to see how Facebook will look leading up to and on the day of this year’s presidential election. And more, this article makes me feel a little better about posting my political opinions on my social networking sites as I follow the candidates on the road to the election.