The Sociology of Social Media

John Hope-Johnstone

Buenos tardes, in this post I want to give some thought regarding the “why” of social media, from the view point of sociology.

It will most likely be the least read of my many posts but since sociology is my avocation, it intrigues me why so many of us have rushed to embrace social media and what that will mean to the future of society.

There are a plethora of humanity decrying a doom to civilization because of social media. I don’t subscribe to their point of view but I do respect it.

As far as social media platforms themselves (facebook, Twiiter, Linkedin etc.), they are merely benign technology. Social media is NOT an answer, it is an enabler and it is how we react to these new technologies that creates change in our society.

OMG!  There r u who predict the collapse of language. If all we do is text using clever ways to get within our required number of characters, will written language disappear? There are those who claim that teenagers will cease to be able to verbally communicate with anyone. As I pointed out in a speech when this was raised during Q&A, teenagers have NEVER been able to communicate anyway, except in their own language. My parents during the 60s never understood a word I uttered anymore than I understood very much of what they said….cool man!

In pulling a search on the subject of Sociology and Social Media, I received about 8,620,000 results on the SRP. Most were a total waste of time. By page three Google had given up linking sociology with social media and was continuing on with just any old find.

A few responses gave one or two glimpses into the sociology behind it all, but I was left feeling that a lot more study needs to be done on the subject. Of course, it is a young medium in its early days.

Is it possible that the increased isolation of modern life, with far flung families, married couples who work thousands of miles apart and an aging population is feeding our rapid adoption of social media?

One report that just came out by Pew Research shows that the older generation is adopting social media at an astounding rate.

While social media use has grown dramatically across all age groups, Pew reports, older users have been especially enthusiastic over the past year (2009) about embracing new networking tools. Social networking use among internet users ages 50 and older nearly doubled—from 22% in April 2009 to 42% in May 2010.

  • Between April 2009 and May 2010, social networking use among internet users ages 50-64 grew by 88%–from 25% to 47%.
  • During the same period, use among those ages 65 and older grew 100%–from 13% to 26%.
  • By comparison, social networking use among users ages 18-29 grew by 13%—from 76% to 86%.

One interesting blog I found through my search, was a report by Justin Smith quoting Cameron Marlow, Researcher for Facebook and written on February of 2009. (Notice that when we now pick up a book at Barnes and Noble, or quote an authority from a blog, we are suspect of anything over a year old).

In Smith’s report on Marlow’s interview with the Economist, Marlow quoted the famous Dunbar number, which is a “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”. It is generally accepted to be about 150.

Marlow’s findings through his research work at facebook seem to support the Dunbar number: while many people have hundreds friends on Facebook, they still only actively communicate with a small few. Or, to quote the author of the article, “Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.”

In other words, Facebook users comment on stuff from only about 5-10% of their Facebook friends. With women communicating with more people in all cases than men.

“People who are members of online social networks are not so much ‘networking’ as they are ‘broadcasting’ their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,’” Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, says.

This report would seem to indicate that for the moment social media while expanding our reach is not expanding our capability to handle greater numbers of friends even if it is only ambient intimacy.

If we look at the downside to avid use of social media we can find:

  1. Scarcity of time
  2. Scarcity of mental energy
  3. A feeling of panic and being rushed
  4. Overly connected
  5. No down time
  6. Never being in the present moment

I am sure there are many more and please leave me a comment on this post and let me know what they are.

If we look at the positive sides to social media:

  1. Finding old friends (good and bad)
  2. Finding new friends all over the World
  3. Learning new things (some true some not)
  4. Keeping in contact with the far flung Nuclear family
  5. Reduction in a feeling of isolation
  6. Connecting with our troops abroad
  7. It’s better than television

And again, I am sure there are hundreds more.

One Guru of mine Brian Solis of FutureWorks , who wrote about Sociology and Social Media back in 2007, also provided a video interview recorded in May of 2009 in which he expressed very well where sociology is finding itself today, as it relates to social media:

In conclusion, I have been gaining some sociological insights by reading and enjoying my new copy of Success Secrets of The Social Media Marketing Superstars by Mitch Meyerson . It is well worth a read.

In the first Chapter Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz give these two insights as follows: “In today’s virtual world, you don’t need a Twitter strategy or a facebook strategy or even a Google strategy, they state, you need a relationship strategy that leverages all aspects of social media.”

In another part of the same chapter, they use this phrase: ” Ground yourself and your interactions with others with these four mindsets: Generosity, Vulnerability, Candor and Accountability.”

Thanks for reading this post. I would love to hear your viewpoint on how social media is changing society. Give it a tweet below and become a friend on facebook.



  1. Wendy Tagg says:

    I am so glad to read a column that challenges the gloomy assumptions about social media … and loved the comment about teenagers’ language.

    Lately there has been much debate around Carr’s “The Shallows”, which paints the internet as the enemy of deep thinking. Really? In the last couple of days, my expensive, broadsheet, allegedly quality newspaper has spent pages gushing over our (UK) Prime Minister’s holiday, new baby etc. In the UK Twitter trends, the lead has often been the abolition of NHSDirect (Government funded healthcare helpline). So twitter has been giving me hard news and the newspaper gossip!

    p.s. Twitter also led me to your blog, which has helped clarify my thinking around the the distinction between the plaforms/button pushing + the social side. Thank you.

  2. buzzmaster says:

    Wendy, thank you for your kind comments. One of the great joys of social media is that we can find like minds from many different parts of the world. I appreciate your time and your comments. John

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