Monday, March 17, 2008

Review: Holland, ed. Remote Relationships in a Small World (2007)

I ran across Remote Relationships in a Small World a month or so ago in a publisher’s catalog, and I thought it looked pretty promising, seeing as my work is gravitating towards studies of social networks and mobile communication. The collection of essays are intended, according to editor Samantha Holland, to provide new research on social relationships conducted online. This, I assume, is the source of the title, which suggests that the digital age has both made the world smaller by allowing for instant communication across time and space, but at the same time that time and space is real and has a real effect on the relationships conducted online.

The three chapters that jumped out at me were Holland’s chapter (with Julie Harpin) on the use of MySpace by British teenagers, Janet Finlay and Lynette Willoughby’s study of the use of WebCT forums and blogs in online learning, and Simeon J. Yates and Eleanor Lockley’s study of male and female cell phone use. (The complete TOC can be found here.)

Holland and Harpin presented the results of a pilot study of teenage British MySpace users, following the usage habits of 12 teenagers. Their results seemed to confirm the work of boyd and Ellision (2007) in that the teenagers they studied tended to use MySpace to communicate with people they already knew socially. Additionally, the authors found that, unlike the typical stereotype of the digital loner, the social network was a “hive of sociability.”

Similarly, Finlay and Willoughby’s chatper didn’t break any new ground. They found that a minority of the (mostly male) students using their course forum and individual blogs would post offensive messages, and that this behavior tended to alienate other users. After their mostly textual case study, the authors concluded that for an online learning space to be a real community of practice there needed to be scaffolded interactions with the community so that users could become socialized to it, a feat which was not possible in their 12-week course.

Finally, Yates and Lockley examined the use of cell phones by men and women in a number of different contexts: at home, on the train, and in other public places like restaurants and coffee shops. They found that the men in their study tended to send shorter messages than the women, and that the longest messages were sent in conversations between two women. Like Holland and Harpin, the authors found that the participants in their study tended to not use their phones to contact or converse with strangers, but rather to keep in touch with people who were close to them, both physically (neighbors) and emotionally (friends and relatives).

I found this collection to be a bit of a mixed bag. While the studies I mentioned here were interesting, and had interesting conclusions, I found myself wishing they were a bit more rigorous. This was particularly the case with the Holland and Harpin and Finlay and Wiloughby chapters. While each was interesting, neither broke new ground, and both seemed to merely share the overall theme of the online texts they collected. Admittedly the Holland and Harpin study was a preliminary one, but, that being the case, I wonder why it was included in this collection.

The Yates and Lockley chapter suffered from the opposite problem. The authors used a large number of measures—surveys, observation, diary studies, focus groups—but the analysis and discussion of these measures seemed abrupt to me. I would have liked to have seen them choose some of the data to focus on with more depth and detail, rather than have them present this cornucopia of data.

That said, I found the book to be useful, not the least for the support, however tentative, that the studies included in it lend to the thesis that social communication is used more to keep in contact with people in existing social networks, rather than create new contacts. Somewhat ironically, these studies seem to suggest that our online relationships aren’t so “remote” after all.

1 comment:

Ellielock said...

Hi - I found your comments pretty interesting and useful - I'm writing my PhD up at the moment and think that I've perhaps almost got too much data - I definitely don't want to brush over any of it - if you would like any further information about the study please don't hestitate to contact me E.Lockley@shu.ac.uk
I love to hear people's feedback/opinions/viewpoints
Thanks again