It’s been a long summer of difficult headlines for Facebook.
As well as facing continued criticism over data sharing and political advertising, they recently announced a slow-down in user-growth and suffered a subsequent fall in share price.
Without doubt, tech giants need to be held to account. But perhaps this is a good moment to remember the incredible potential for good that social networking platforms still hold.
That’s why a recent study by Harvard, Princeton, NYU and Facebook caught my eye. Using anonymised and aggregated data, the authors analysed Facebook friendships to develop a ‘Social Connectedness Index’.
This metric allows the authors to measure friendship networks in different geographies and learn about their effects on other areas of life.
For example, they found that Americans whose social circles mostly live within a small distance tended to be less educated, have lower incomes and lower life expectancies.
On the other hand, those with a more dispersed social network were richer, more educated and healthier.
They also looked at levels of interconnectedness between Americans and citizens of other countries. They found that the more a group of people were connected with a foreign country, the more trade took place between it and the US, with the value of exports increasing significantly.
Relationships that enrich our lives
Facebook might not directly cause friendships, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t help us to maintain better relationships with more people over greater distances than we would otherwise.
And the research seems to suggest that those relationships enrich our lives and society in multiple ways, all the way from our health to our wallet.
This idea won’t be new to anyone who follows the latest thoughts on mental health, where levels of social connectedness are found to be tightly correlated with depression. Johan Hari’s Lost Connections is an excellent tour through the topic.
Nor should it be new to marketers or communication professionals.
When done right, social media campaigns rely on our growing interconnectedness to ensure our brands’ messages reach the people they will benefit the most.
There are several well-known examples. From Always’ #LikeAGirl right through to the recent campaign to ban plastics, successful brands are using social networks as far more than just another media platform – they’re using our online friendships to spread good ideas.
As a marketer who’s tied to Facebook as one half of the digital advertising duopoly, it’s easy to feel frustrated.
But we should resist the temptation to dismiss social networks as a mess of trolls, cat videos, click-bait, polarising headlines and an echo-chamber of self-righteous debate, and remember it still has that potential to be genuinely life-enriching.
And as this area of research grows, it should lead to more fascinating insight for policymakers.
But it should also provide a useful reminder of the value of social networks to those of us who have grown a little disillusioned with them – including marketers.