Undercover Economist

The antisocial network?

Two economists have been collecting data to assess whether online friends are good for the soul. The quick answer: not really

Eliza was the first software to simulate human conversation. It was developed in the mid-1960s by Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT. The most famous version mimicked a psychotherapist, thus hiding its conversational incompetence: “Men are all alike.” “In what way?” “They’re always bugging us about something specific or other.” “Can you think of a specific example?” “Well, my boyfriend made me come here.” “Your boyfriend made you come here?” And so on.

It was a clever program but Professor Weizenbaum, who died in 2008, was disturbed by the fact that several people seemed to find talking to Eliza genuinely therapeutic. Computers, concluded Weizenbaum, might not be terribly good for our emotional wellbeing.

These days, concern has moved to the amount of time we spend checking social networks – even if our online friends are, presumably, human beings. Two economists, John Helliwell and Haifang Huang, have been collecting the data necessary to assess whether such online friends are good for the soul. The quick answer: not really.

Helliwell and Huang analyse a Canadian social survey of 5,000 people called the “Happiness Monitor”, which measures how happy, stressed or satisfied with their lives people are, using a variety of standard questions. The Happiness Monitor also asks people how many friends they have in their real-life social network, as well as how large their online network is.

They find that having troops of friends is correlated with a sense of wellbeing. (As is common with such exercises, the direction of causation is unclear: perhaps happy people attract friends.) The effect is substantial: having twice as many friends is associated with the same increase in happiness as having a 50 per cent increase in income. But move the social network online, and larger networks do nothing for our happiness. Millions of digital sceptics will be unsurprised.

I am sceptical about the value of Facebook myself, but the most natural reading of Helliwell and Huang’s results is that a Facebook “friend” is not necessarily a friend at all, just a setting that tells software whose status updates to show us. The Happiness Monitor doesn’t even use the word “friend” when asking about the size of online social networks. (I have 73 Facebook friends and 65,000 Twitter followers, and it is not clear which represents the size of my online social network.)

Another study, by Fenne Deters and Matthias Mehl, published late last year in Social Psychological & Personality Science, asks a different question about our online socialising: how do we feel when we post status updates to Facebook? And how do we feel if nobody responds? Deters and Mehl ran a randomised trial with 102 students at the University of Arizona. The control group was given no specific instructions; the treatment group was asked to post more status updates “than they usually post per week”. Some ignored the instruction – but those who did not said they felt less lonely. It would be easy to over-interpret these results: the sample is small and there is something artificial about posting updates to Facebook in response to the request of an experimental psychologist.

The study is intriguing. It did not seem to matter whether anyone responded to the status updates. Perhaps people felt that they were being read even if there was no feedback; or perhaps responses came via email, text or face to face, unseen by the experimenters.

Or perhaps Facebook updates make us feel connected even though nobody out there is listening. That suggests a curious view of social networking: it may have little to do with true socialising. We may simply feel satisfied with the illusion that someone is paying attention. Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of Eliza, would not have been surprised.

Also published at ft.com.