New America Media
Editor's Note: Peer pressure, curiosity, business contacts and a taste for cyber-celebrity may explain why so many people are living their lives through Facebook and other social networking sites.NAM Washington correspondent Cristina Fernandez-Pereda reports
WASHINGTON, D.C.--If you are graduating from college, and you haven’t created your profile on Facebook or Linked In or MySpace, most likely you will. Social networking sites have changed from being the place where users, mostly young people, share information about themselves to being social networks where users of all ages hunt for jobs, promote events, and even campaign for their political causes.
But what happens if you are not online?
"I've heard students use statements like 'If I'm not online, it's like I don't exist'” said Michael Stefanone assistant professor of communications at the University of Buffalo. “Sometimes they meet someone in class, they go to Facebook afterwards and if they don't have a profile online, it's abnormal, it's like raising a red flag to them."
For BJ Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University and author of the book "The Psychologies of Facebook," the social networking site is already part of people's social lives. "If you are not online, you are not part of what is going on in social life today. More and more people who have been resisting Facebook have now given in because they know it is part of social life," Fogg said.
Both Stefanone and Fogg agree that the main reason why young Internet users and, more recently, professionals are joining sites such as Facebook and MySpace is to network. But the other reason is curiosity. It is peer pressure and curiosity to learn new information about other people that push them over the threshold.
Joy McFarland, 28, an English professor in Madrid, says that she’s guilty of the former. "My best friend doesn't have Facebook and hates that we can't make it through a single sentence without mentioning it," McFarland said. “She always says that she feels so pressured because she feels she's missing out on so much by not having it.”
For Jihane Abou Chabke, 26, a communications professional in northern Virginia, peer pressure is exactly the reason she joined the network. "That's how, in my turn, I pressured other friends to create their own profiles. It is just so overwhelming--a part of our lives that you just can't ignore.”
However, the reasons people keep updating their online profiles and checking their friends' latest information might not be just peer pressure.
Through his research, Stefanone has found that young users spend a lot of time just learning new information about their friends. "This makes it easier for them to engage in casual conversations because they have references as to what they did and can start from there," said Stefanone.
Even though some of the students he has interviewed affirmed that it's "addicting" and sometimes wondered how much time they spend on these sites, there's one question that Stefanone has never considered asking: Why don't they leave the online networks?
And that's because he already knew the answer. While people can get a lot of information from these sites and benefit from it, "there's no cost for keeping their profiles, all it would take is to not pay attention to them," Stefanone said.
While experts can expect a majority of new college students starting the school year with an online profile, it's still not clear how many of them continue to actively use these social networking sites when they become professionals. But it seems like these young users are transforming the networking sites to their own advantage.
"I use them as a living Rolodex so I can keep everyone's current contact information, keep in touch with old colleagues so they don't forget me, and also as a way to find about job openings," said Sonia Checchia, an associate at a Washington, D.C.-area consulting company. "The groups are useful for contacts, information on conferences and mini-communities to share resources."
Social networks have become not just a place where people can find useful personal contact information. Stefanone's team researched the reasons Internet users post personal information in the first place, and the lure of celebrity might be behind it all.
Their findings were published in a study called, “We're all stars now: Reality Television, Web 2.0, and Mediated Identities.” They found there is a direct relationship between how much reality television people watch on the one hand, and the amount of time users spend on networking sites, the size of the their network, the proportion of friends they have and the frequency with which they share photos on the other hand.
In the end, the pressure to exist online and share who you are with other Internet users--perhaps feeling a little more famous--explains the fascination with these networks and why more and more keep joining every day.
"It's just like having an Internet connection, email address or a cell phone," said Fogg. "People feel they will pay a social price if they don't have any of those."