January 25, 2006

The Strength of Internet Ties

Keeping in Contact with Core and Significant Ties

There has been an explosion in the modes and reach of remote communication.

When Wellman conducted his early studies of social ties in 1968 and 1979,1 the results were relatively straightforward. Americans either telephoned (using traditional “landline” phones, of course)2 or saw each other in person — traveling by foot, car, mass transit, or airplane. Although the travel options have remained largely the same (except that airplane travel has become much cheaper and more routine), communication options have proliferated. Since the mid-1980s, cell phones have joined landline phones — so much so that some people no longer even have a landline telephone at home. During the 1990s, large proportions of the world’s population have joined the relatively small number of scholars and researchers who were the original internet users. The tools for electronic communication have expanded beyond the original email and Usenet messages to include instant messaging, group messaging on email lists, conversing in chat rooms, posting blogs, internet telephoning, and webcams.

Not only have the means of communication proliferated, but the reach of communication has increased. It is as cheap to email someone across the ocean as it is to email them across the street. With transoceanic visits still relatively expensive and rare, and with transoceanic phone calls entailing careful time-zone juggling, the asynchronous (store-and-retrieve) nature of email makes communication across time zones much more achievable. While phone calls remain largely between two persons (or at most, between two households on extension phones), email and IM make it easy for many people to communicate at once.

Furthermore, the cost of communication itself has gone down — whether people use the telephone or the internet. Once Americans have invested in the cost of computing equipment and flat-rate monthly communication charges, they can communicate almost for free.

Despite the increased options, people still communicate largely by traditional means — in person and by landline phone lines.

The Social Ties survey sheds new light on the extent to which the new communication media aid in the maintenance of social ties among friends, relatives, workmates, and acquaintances. The survey shows that even with the flourishing of the internet, people still most commonly communicate with their social ties in traditional ways — in person and by landline phone. However, many also use email, cell phone, and IM for social communications.

People tend to use different ensembles of media to communicate with their core and significant ties. There is an identical order for both core and significant ties for how often each communication medium is used. In-person encounters are most widely used, followed by landline phone, cell phone, email, and IM.

People communicate weekly with a
greater percentage of their core ties than
their significant ties.

Even though people have a larger number of significant ties in their networks, they are in at least weekly contact with more of their core ties than with their significant ties. This is true for every communication medium. For example, they are 1.3 times more likely to have an in-person contact with a core tie at least weekly than with a significant tie; 1.8 times more likely to have a landline phone call, 2.2 times more likely to have a cell phone call, 1.6 times more likely to use email, and 1.8 times more likely to use IM.3 These ratios indicate that cell phones and IM are mostly for contacts with core ties, while in-person encounters are widely used for contact with significant as well as core ties.

Cell phones and IM are used mostly
to communicate with core ties.

Communicating with core ties

Americans rely heavily on in-person encounters and telephones — both cell phones and landline phones — to connect with core ties (Figure 3). They see slightly less than half (43%) of their core ties in person at least weekly, and they are also in weekly landline telephone contact with slightly less than half (42%) of their core ties.

Yet, new communication technologies — cell phones, email, and IM — play important roles in connecting people with their core ties. Those with cell phones use them to call more than a third (36%) of their core ties at least weekly. Email users send messages weekly to a quarter (25%) of their core ties, while instant message users exchange IMs weekly with 14% of their core ties.

Communicating with significant ties

In-person meetings are the most widespread way by which significant ties are contacted weekly. Landline phones, cell phones, IM, or email are not used as much to connect with significant ties as they are to connect with core ties.

By contrast, people are much less likely to phone their significant ties than their core ties. Rather, they usually connect with their significant ties in person. One-third (33%) of all significant ties are seen in person at least weekly, while about one-quarter (23%) are contacted by landline phone. Lower percentages are in weekly contact by cell phone, email, and even more rarely, IM.

Landline phones

Landline phone contact is more common for connecting with core ties than it is for connecting with significant ties. Landline phones are the second most widespread way of connecting with both core and significant ties. However, landline phones have a more important role in connecting people with their core ties than with their significant ties. While an almost equal percentage (43%) of core ties are contacted in person and by landline phone, a lower percentage of significant ties are contacted weekly by landline phone (23%) than in person (33%). People are 1.8 times more likely to connect with significant ties in person than by landline phone. They are also almost twice as likely to use landline phones to connect weekly with their core ties than with their significant ties.

Why are fewer significant ties phoned weekly? Research by Wellman and Tindall (1993) shows that people often feel obliged to contact their core ties by phone when they are not able to see them in person. By contrast, they feel less obliged to contact their significant ties by phone when in-person contact is not possible. It is easy to see in person the large number of significant ties who are physically proximate neighbors and workmates.

Cell phones

Cell phones are used to make weekly contact with a greater percentage of core ties than either email or IM. However, cell phones and email are used about equally for connecting with significant ties. People contact with a quarter of their core ties weekly by cell phone (26%) but only 12% of their significant ties. Similarly, they are more apt to use email to contact their core ties weekly (15%) than their significant ties (11%).

These are the percentages for all of the Americans surveyed. Yet, not all Americans have cell phones or internet access: only 74% of the people we surveyed are cell phone users, and even smaller percentages are email users (63%) and IM users (27%). However, even those who have cell phones and use the internet are more apt to contact core and significant ties in person or by landline phone than by cell phone, email, or IM.

It is clear that Americans use landline phones more than cell phones, and they are more likely to use cell phones for contacting core ties than for contacting significant ties. Cell phone use may play a greater role in connecting core ties because it is a personal communication medium that can be intrusive by ringing anywhere and anytime. People may not have the cell phone numbers of significant ties and, if they do, they may be more hesitant to call at potentially inopportune moments. Moreover, cell phones aid in the “on-the-fly” decision-making that often happens with close friends and family in daily life, such as deciding what groceries to buy or arranging to pick up a child from soccer practice. This may be a worldwide phenomenon, as heavy use of cell phones to contact core ties has also been found in Japan and Europe.4

Email

Even for those with internet access, email is used less often than in-person encounters or telephoning for connecting with core ties. However, email is used equally as often as cell phones for connecting with significant ties. Although IM is rarely used by most adult Americans for contacting their core and significant ties, when it is used, it is used in particular to contact core ties.

When people have internet access, email is important for maintaining contact with both core and significant ties. Email users contact one-quarter (25%) of their core ties at least weekly as well as 15% of their significant ties. Far from being a medium that connects weaker ties in superficial ways — one of the fears of the turn towards internet communication — email is actually used more for maintaining core than significant relationships.

IM

By contrast, IM is used much less widely. As for phones, IM is more a medium for contacting core ties (14%) than significant ties (8%). Yet recent studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that IM is widely used among teens.5 There is reason to wonder. Adult work life produces fragmented and focused demands that often can better be handled by email than IM. Further, there is a strong possibility that “texting,” exchanging messages by cell phone, will continue to grow and become as important as IM in America, just as it has in Europe and Asia.

What do these percentages mean?

What do the percentages in this section mean in terms of numbers? They show that Americans, on average, are in at least weekly in-person contact with a median of 5 core ties and 4 significant ties. They are also in weekly landline phone contact with 5 core ties but only 2 significant ties. They are in weekly cell phone contact with 2 core ties but no significant ties, and do not have any weekly email or IM contact with any core or significant ties.

Therefore, in this section, the numbers refer to all Americans, including those who do not use cell phones or emails. For those Americans who do use these media, the numbers rise substantially. Cell phone users are in weekly cell phone contact with 4 core ties and 1 significant tie, while email users are in weekly email contact with 2 core ties and 1 significant tie. IM users are in weekly contact with 1 core tie and no significant ties. These data in Figure 3 also show that cell phone and email users contact in person and by phone the same number of core and significant ties as non-users. However, email has clearly aided contact.

Figure 3

Average percent of ties contacted at least weekly

  1. numoffset=”8″ See Wellman (1979) and Wellman and Wortley (1990).
  2. There is no popular term for traditional telephones where the signal comes into the home by wire. Until the cell phone boom, there were only (wired) “phones.” Now, telephone companies use the terms “landline” and “wireline” to distinguish traditional phones from cell phones even though many landline phones have cordless handsets. The relevant distinction is that landline phones usually connect by wire to the whole household while cell phones connect to an individual. Cell phones are person-to-person, where traditional phones are place-to-place. To further complicate matters, new forms of voice communication are proliferating. Internet phones are starting to be used by more than the technorati, and such person-to-person phones provide a host of new features and complications.
  3. numoffset=”10″ The calculations regarding cell phone, email, and IM include only respondents that use these technologies.
  4. See the books about the social nature of cell phone use edited by Ito, Matsuda, and Daisuke (2005) and Ling and Pedersen (2005).
  5. Lenhart (2002); Shiu and Lenhart (2004).