We know each other, right? You're on Facebook. No? Maybe we tweeted about Iraq? Or were we job-nobbing on LinkedIn? Increasingly, if you're not plugged into a social network, you feel out of the loop. But as scientists start to study our newfound connectivity, some worry that we're heading for a massive friender-bender.
"It can be exhilarating, at least at first, to connect with long-lost friends," says network science expert Steven Strogatz, PhD, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University. But the downside, he worries, is growing confusion between our weak ties (people who might be useful in referring us to a good dentist or helping us find a job) and our strong ties (those we're very close to). "The distinction between genuine friends and acquaintances is becoming blurred. Users are spending time maintaining relationships with people they don't really care about."
And who are these people, anyway? Electronic relationships make it easy for "friends" to misrepresent themselves—always showing their best side, for instance—notes Pauline Wiessner, PhD, a University of Utah anthropologist who studies social networks. Anonymity also allows darker impulses to flourish. In one tragic case, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after being cyberbullied on MySpace by Josh Evans—not a real boy, it turned out, but a creation of neighbors.
High-speed connecting may even affect the way we react to people. In a recent study out of USC, brain scans showed that volunteers needed at least four to six seconds to process stories of virtue or social pain in others. "It takes a certain amount of time to fully experience complex social emotions," says the lead author, cognitive neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. Heavy reliance on the rapid intake of certain information—especially in younger, developing minds—could have consequences on our morality. It could also be "a whole new source of unhappiness," says Strogatz. "On Twitter the conversation never stops. You start to feel that if you're not involved in it, you're missing out."
It's enough to make you long for the good old days of connecting over a cup of coffee.