Does social media ‘devalue’ relationships?


In his recent post at the Harvard Business Review blog, Umair Haque argues that the ‘social media bubble’ has devalued relationships through inflation. In economics, the more money there is in circulation, the less value (i.e. buying power) that money has because increased circulation causes prices to rise, and Umair suggests that this is what social media has done to relationships.

It’s an interesting idea but I think it’s flawed.

For this idea to stand up you would have to assume that we have a strictly limited amount of attention to devote to relationships, and that every new relationship you participate in somehow degrades the value of all of your other relationships. I don’t think this is true.

People do not invest any less effort in their important relationships just because they have a large number of less important connections on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. If anything social media enhances relationships, providing an additional conversation channel between friends and family that can be used to connect when they are apart.

Facebook enables me to maintain a constant, low level of conversation with those close to me throughout my working week. I don’t have time to write emails or have IM conversations with all of my friends and family over the course of a week, but with a few status updates here and there we are able to communicate casually when we are not spending time together.

Looking beyond the stronger relationships, Facebook makes it easier to stay in contact with people who might otherwise have drifted away. Colleagues from old jobs, friends and relatives who move far away, with the best will in the world, you struggle to stay in touch with some people because of the practicalities of everyday life.

The relationships with those people may be weak, but at least the connection is maintained rather than being completely severed. And the same is true of channels like Twitter and LinkedIn. The relationships I have on those platforms are mostly with colleagues, professional acquaintances or simply people who share the same interests as me. These relationships are mostly low value, but it takes very little effort for me to maintain them, and the level of effort required does not significantly increase when the number of relationships rises.

Low value relationships are fine, so long as they come at low cost

This brings me onto my key point: the reason social media enables us to vastly increase the number of weak relationships is because tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn significantly reduce the level of effort involved in maintaining those relationships.

Most of those relationships are of low value, but under the right circumstances any of them could evolve into a much more valuable relationship; they might be able to help me with a problem, give me a great idea, or lead to a solid business opportunity. The ‘opportunity cost’ (i.e. the time and effort I have to expend in maintaining them) is so low as to make it more than worthwhile for me.

Umair argues further that the ultimate proof of the true worthlessness of social media relationships is that nobody is willing to pay for them. This point is hard to counter, but I think it’s fair to say that just because it is hard to monetise something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no value – the internet is full of good things that are not particularly profitable, high quality news journalism being a good case in point.