The Effect of Social Networking Sites

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Lessons from Facebook: The Effect of Social Network Sites on College Students’ Social Capital 1 Sebastián Valenzuela 2 , Namsu Park 3 , and Kerk F. Kee 4 University of Texas at Austin

Submitted to the 9th International Symposium on Online Journalism Austin, Texas, April 4-5, 2008

We wish to thank Dr. Sharon Strover for her intellectual and financial support for this project, as well as the participants of the seminar “Interactivity and Web 2.0,” held during Fall 2007 at the University of Texas at Austin. Corresponding author: Sebastián Valenzuela; E-mail: 2 PhD student, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. 3 PhD student, Department of Radio, Television and Film, University of Texas at Austin. 4 PhD student, Department of Communication Studies, University of Texas at Austin 1


Lessons from Facebook


Abstract This study examines if Facebook, one of the most popular social network sites among young adults in the U.S., fulfills the promise of civic journalism: to spark attitudes and behaviors that enhance public life and civic action. Using data from a random web survey of college students in Texas (n = 2,603), we find moderate, positive relationships between intensity of Facebook use and students' life satisfaction, social trust, civic participation and political engagement. The associations between Facebook usage and students' social capital are detectable even when taking demographic, socioeconomic and socialization variables into account. These findings highlight important lessons for journalists and media interested in reconnecting individuals, especially young adults, to society and public life.

Lessons from Facebook


Lessons from Facebook: The Effect of Social Network Sites on College Students’ Social Capital Moral panic is a common reaction to new forms of communication. The advent of television spawned fears of mass idiotization. Similarly, in the early 90s, critics held the diffusion of Internet as evidence of individuals’ increasing alienation from society and public life. The story with social network sites (SNS) such as Facebook and MySpace is not any different. Unsafe disclosure of information, cyberbullying, addiction, risky behavior and contacting dangerous communities are but a few of the concerns raised in the media about the use of online social networks. As could be expected, researchers have begun to put to empirical test these claims, reaching a more balanced understanding of SNS. Existing research shows that young people are motivated to join these sites to keep strong ties with friends, to strengthen ties with new acquaintances, and, to a lesser degree, to meet new people online (Acquisti & Gross, 2006). At the same time, sites like Facebook allow them to exchange news and discuss issues, both public (e.g., the 2008 U.S. presidential election) and private (e.g., movie tastes). In this paper, we examine if social network sites, given their nature and capabilities, have the potential for creating new pathways to civic and political participation. Specifically, we use original survey data to test several hypotheses regarding the influence of Facebook usage on college students’ social capital, a multidimensional concept that includes life satisfaction, social trust, civic participation and political engagement. In doing so, we also aim to gain a better understanding of “who is and who is not using these sites, why and for what purposes” (boyd & Ellison, 2007, p. 224).

Lessons from Facebook


The impact of online social networks on social capital can be achieved in myriad ways. For instance, common interest groups can help users coordinate for collective action. At the same time, regular exchanges between users can foster trust and norms of reciprocity that are key antecedents of community life. Likewise, news feeds allow users to keep in touch with what is going on “out there.” In this context, social network...
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