Social media use and social support – lessons learned from ICA

We are not the only research group interested in the effects of social media use on social capital, that is, the emotional and informational benefits people can get from their social networks. Many talks at the ICA, the conference of the International Communication Association (June 17 – 31, 2013) focused on social media (see here and several focused more specifically on the relationships between Facebook use and social support. What did they find?
The group from University of Oklahoma presented results from a study in which they asked 88 students to copy&paste their three most recent Facebook status updates and the five most recent comments they received on them. In 37% of the comments, people were seeking for social support, and 52% of the comments offered social support. From those, the majority (45%) provided esteem support, 17% provided emotional support, and 14% provided informational support. This is interesting, because prior research on online social support mostly found evidence for informational support. Facebook seems to be an ideal medium for esteem support – giving compliments or validating one’s perspective. People receive more support from weak ties (acquaintances) than from strong ties (close friends), probably because most Facebook “friends” are weak ties. However, social support from close friends was not evaluated as less effective than social support from weak ties as usually reported for offline social support. Thus, Facebook use results in more social support.

Ellison and colleagues took a different approach. In cooperation with Facebook, they analyzed 20.000 public status updates and examined how many of them contained mobilization requests (e.g. asking for information, a recommendation or a favor) and categorized these according to costs and type. Only a small proportion (4,4%) of the status updates were mobilization requests. Most common were favor requests (47%) and opinion polls (40%). Eight percent asked for factual information, 7% for recommendations and only 4% for recommendations (some updates contained several requests, therefore more than 100%). The lowest cost level was defined as an interaction within the status updates (e.g., retweeting), the middle cost level required some action on a different part of Facebook or another communication channel, and the highest cost level was represented by requests requiring offline action. Almost 70% of the requests were low cost level requests, followed by 23% middle cost level requests. Thus, only a small percentage of requests asked for offline help. These results are somewhat in contrast with the ones reported above, in which 37% of the status updates were seeking for social support. However, Ellison et al. could only study public updates – most of the mobilization requests might only be posted to friends or a group of friends. Moreover, seeking for esteem support (likes, compliments) was not used as a category for the mobilization requests.

Taken togethere, these two studies suggests that people do receive social support on Facebook, but mostly from Facebook friends. Most of the support sought and received is of a low cost level – just a like or comment on the status update.

Oh, Ozkaya & Larose (2013) demonstrated that the number of Facebook friends is positively related to psychological outcomes such as positive affect, life satisfaction or sense of community, but that this is mediated by supportive interactions. That is, it is not the number of friends that predicts positive outcomes, but the amount of support received from these friends.
To concluse, these studies demonstrate that Facebook use results in more offline benefits the more people receive social support from their Facebook friends.

Ellison, N., Gray, R., Vitak, J., Lampe, C., & Fiore, A. (2013). Calling All Facebook
Friends: Exploring requests for help on Facebook. In Proceedings of the 7th annual
International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (pp. forthcoming). Washington,
DC: Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.
Johnson. A.J., Lane, B.L, Tornes, M., King, S, Wright, K.B., Carr, C.T., Piercy, C.W., & Rozzell, B. (2013, June). The social support process and Facebook: Soliciting support from strong and weak ties. Paper presented at the 63rd Annual ICA Conference, London, UK.
Oh, H.J., Ozkaya, E.Y., & Larose, R. (2013, June). How doe online social networking enhance life satisfaction? The relationships among online supportive interaction, affect, sense of community, and life satisfaction. Paper presented at the 63rd Annual ICA Conference, London, UK.
Rozzell, B., Piercy, C.W., Carr, C.T., King, S., Lane, B.L., Tornes, M., Johnson, A.J., & Wright, K.B. (2013, June). The weakness of strong ties: Online social support from networks via Facebook introduction. Paper presented at the 63rd Annual ICA Conference, London, UK.