Keeping close to the core

A good proportion of adults in Europe, are using at least 4 channels of communication a day, fix and mobile phone, SMS, and email.  With all these channels, devices, services, a user contacts on average the same 5 to 10 people 80% of the time. The concentration of exchanges on very few partners is rarely reported by the media and often  users themselves are not aware of it. The general view is that ICT has hugely increased the number of contacts, that internet based communication in particular has extended the number of friends and acquaintances people stay in contact with.

Social networking sites in particular have given the illusion that it is possible not only to reacquaint with old friends but also to find new ones based on ones interests and tastes. Instant messaging and skype with their long lists of buddies have suggested that rapid exchanges with tens or hundreds of people is the norm. Popular media have also divulged the fear of children being constantly exposed to random encounters online in their pursuit of new online buddies. Commentators and popular sociologists have been discussing at length of the risks of having numerous but shallow conversations at the detriment of real profound relationships.

All of these beliefs have been generated by confounding the possibilities and functionalities offered by these new online services and the reality of peoples practices and needs. While it is true that buddy lists can contain hundreds of names, that facebook pages can be linked to tens of friends and that skype allows you to call whoever you see online, the vast majority of people has regular contact with only a tiny susbset of the people they know. This does not mean that they do not enjoy visualizing a big social network, seeing how many people they could potentially chat with or communicate with, just as most people find it essential to be always reachable with their mobile phone. The potential of contact is certainly providing many people a sense of belonging and connectedness but the reality of usage is focused on far fewer and far more significant relationships. Exactly those profound and continuous relationships of which commentators are announcing the decline.

Researchers in various universities and business research centers around the world who have systematically studied the daily use of mobile phones, IM or email are all reaching the same conclusion. New communication media are significantly contributing to strengthening core relationships. New channels are being used to intensify contacts with very significant relations. The main effect, I would add of new media is to extend the range of situations in which individuals can be in touch with the people they most care for.

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