Friday, July 24, 2009

Best friends who have never met?

Do you think it's possible for people who have never met to become best friends? I do. Recently, I analyzed over 16,000 web entries for an online contest, which asked respondents to define what constitutes a real friendship. The analysis was qualitative, but I used an extended model of friendship known among psychologists as the Adams-Blieszner typology. For those of you who are interested in what constitutes an authentic relationship or friendship, I've written a quick overview of the model at the end of the post.

One of the fascinating findings from this project was the group of respondents who wrote entries about a best friend they had never met. I think this is particularly interesting since we live in a world where social media has become the talk of the town and marketers are using the term "web 2.0" in a myriad of ways. The key learning for me was that the relationships created between people who had never met in person - think chats, cancer support groups, responding to ads on Craig's list, social networking sites, or working at the same company and communicating only via the intranet - were almost identical in terms of their most important characteristics when compared with "in person" relationships. People who met online (but never in person) still formed deep personal relationships with others. Like offline friends, a frequently mentioned characteristic was Homogeneity (or Sameness - see below for more explanation), which facilitated a natural connection due to shared experience in life. Other online friends talked about receiving Assistance from a friend, although it might have been in the form of Emotional instead of Physical support (for instance taking the kids off one's hands for a weekend.) Frequency of contact (i.e. we talk every day) often had a positive correlation with online relationships as well, since communication through technology was deemed easy, which may have enabled a higher frequency of contact between friends.

So what does all this mean? I would hypothesize the following: While there are most certainly new rules that apply in the domain of online communications, existing psychological models still lie at the foundation. After all, the internet was created by humans. In fact, understanding the psychosocial significance of our behaviors still lies at the core of who we are, whether we are online or not. Anonymity can skew this, but only in some cases. Most of the time, we are a fairly open book when functioning in the online space, and therefore, we seek authenticity in the relationships we form online. Even if our "online identity" is being positioned one way or another (i.e. "life coach," "citizen journalist," "student," or "social media expert"), our behavior (online or offline) still relies upon an understanding of the manner in which people behave while among others (although individuals, small groups, and larger collectives have different dynamics).

A key takeaway for people working in marketing and business is to consider using these types of behavioral models to glean as much information as possible about the user, even when working within social media or online communications, so as not to reinvent the wheel. Which principles of human behavior and relationships do you think hold true in the online and social media arenas? Which do not?


There are 5 overarching categories used in this model to define the "characteristics" of friendship, and underneath those lie subcategories.

CATEGORY 1: The first overarching category is termed "Behavioral Aspects" of friendship, and it includes four subcategories: Self Disclosure (i.e. we can talk about anything), Sociability (the fun factor, as in, "I really like this person"), Assistance (which can take the form of either a physical, emotional or spiritual help), and Shared Activities (i.e. we're gym buddies, we like to go shopping together).

CATEGORY 2: The second is termed "Cognitive Processes" and this includes: Loyalty/committment (which can come in many forms), Trust, Shared Interests and Values (i.e. we both believe in the same God), Acceptance (lack of judgment even when a friend is making choices you don't agree with), Empathy (i.e. when she is sad, I feel it too), and Appreciation/Respect (which can include admiration and respected traits).

CATEGORY 3: Termed "Affective" aspects, there are two subcategories: Compatibility and Care (where care if often shown by using the word "love" when describing the friend).

CATEGORY 4: The second to last category is termed "Structural" characteristics. This includes two interesting categories, especially for marketers: Solidarity (or closeness) and Homogeneity (or sameness, as in we both are widows, we both have kids at the same school, we both have a 4 year old, a teenager, we were both moving to the same city, etc.)

CATEGORY 5: The final category (Proxy Measures) deals mostly with Frequency of contact (we call each other every day), length of acquaintance (greatly influenced by age and experience of the person responding) and duration of contacts (or quality time spent).

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