The Effects of Facebook Communication on Social Penetration Theory

1 January 2017

Altman and Taylor examine the stages of self-disclosure in social penetration theory and this study will determine if the lines between those stages are being blurred — and therefore causing individuals to self-disclose more quickly and reveal more breadth and depth of information at earlier stages of the relationship. Introduction Facebook has over 900 million users and they are all sharing information in ways that just did not exist 10 years ago.

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Users having the ability to share large amounts of information about themselves on profiles and chat easily with friends through Facebook’s chat interface has made obtaining information on others incredibly easy. Much easier than it used to be. Social Penetration Theory (Altman and Taylor, 1973) Social Penetration Theory states that self-disclosure usually increases gradually as people develop their relationships. It suggests that self-disclosure can be conceptualized in terms of three dimensions: depth, breadth, and frequency.

It is commonly referred to using the onion metaphor. As the frequency of communication and self-disclosure increases, the layers get thicker and closer to the core — or more meaningful or intimate in a relationship sense. Initial interactions in an interpersonal setting will typically only involve communication about frivolous matters. As interactions increase, so does the depth of the subject-matters discussed (Guerrero, Andersen, Afifi, 91). Self-disclosure Self-disclosure occurs when people reveal something about themselves to others (Guerrero, Andersen, Afifi, 91).

Self-disclosure ranges from very impersonal topics to very personal and intimate ones. Social penetration theory suggests that self-disclosure is always happening, but will increase in intimacy as the relationship develops. There are four stages of self-disclosure, as mapped out by Altman and Taylor. They are Orientation, Exploratory Affective Exchange, Affective Exchange, and Stable Exchange. Orientation lasts for the first couple of encounters and involves low levels of depth and breadth.

Exploratory Affective Exchange is what exists between casual acquaintances and simply expands the communication by expanding breadth and frequency, but maintaining low depth of self-disclosure (Altman & Taylor, 1973). Affective Exchange is when both the breadth and depth of self-disclosure increases significantly. Stable Exchange is the stage of the relationship where every topic is up for grabs. Facebook and CMC Facebook tends to blur the lines between the first two stages self-disclosure described above.

Just by becoming “friends” with someone on the social-networking site and viewing their profile, one would fulfil a variety of the qualifications for both Orientation and Exploratory Affective Exchange stages — without even having a conversation with that person! By displaying so much personal information for everyone to see on profile pages, users are able to easily skip ahead to later stages — or deeper into the onion. According to at least one recent study, what we hold as “personal” or not is changing — especially with the use of Computer-mediated communication (Facebook 11).

Relationship status, for example, is found to be a piece of very personal information that most users (85%) display on their profile pages. In somewhat of a contradiction, a piece of information that most people rate as highly personal is being shared by most users for all to see. Facebook chat is a feature that allows users to instantly message or IM friends who are also online at any given time. This creates the possibility for interpersonal contact with anyone in a user’s social network — at any time.

With this ease of access to a tool that potentially speeds up social penetration theory, it is worth studying exactly how CMC on Facebook is different than in typical face-to-face communication. To investigate this theory, the following hypotheses are posed: H1: There will be higher reported closeness in interpersonal relationships between acquaintances when the primary mode of communication is through Facebook as opposed to face-to-face. H2:

A positive correlation will exist between time spent on Facebook and number of reported “close friends. It is likely that studying these hypotheses will answer questions on the changes in interpersonal communication in a CMC setting, specifically on Facebook. People often use Facebook as one of their primary modes of communication, so these hypotheses will be relevant. RQ1: When surveying for closeness in interpersonal relationships between acquaintances, will users communicating primarily on Facebook report having more close relationships than those who do not primarily communicate on Facebook?

RQ2: When surveying for number of close friends a Facebook user has, will those who spend more time on Facebook report having more close friends than someone who does not spend as much time on Facebook? Method Participants Participants will be Facebook users in college across the country. College students would be ideal for this study because they will exhibit the change in communication best — being in the generation of people who grew up on computers and more likely to spend time on Facebook.

It would also be easy to get college participation by having schools send the survey out on listservs or bulletin boards. This would be a great way to get a large sample across a wide geographic area spanning many different regions and subcultures in America. Procedure Delivering the survey across such a wide geographical range would be simple using an online survey tool. It would allow the researcher to control the demographic of the survey recipients more closely and examine data based on the demographics.

A Likert five point scale survey would be used to measure each of the research questions. The survey items would be used to measure closeness of their relationships and how much breadth and depth of self-disclosure existed in those relationships. In addition to the Likert surveys, there would be questions that would call for numerical responses: such as number of close friends and time spent on Facebook. Discussion The purpose of the study is to examine the relationship between Facebook communication and closeness in relationships.

It is argued that CMC, especially on Facebook, has the tendency to blur the lines of social penetration theory’s stages of self-disclosure — often facilitating a quicker way of getting closer to people. Students may report that it is “easier” to communicate with people over the Internet than in person. Others may report that it is just another great avenue for expanding their relationships and getting more from them. The Likert survey would be perfect for gauging these types of situations. The methodology does have some limitations.

Since the survey is being delivered online, it is impossible to be completely certain of who is filling it out. Just because it is delivered and intended for one person does not mean that someone else could be taking the survey and skewing the results. Surveying only college students may be a limitation, as well. There are a lot of people outside of that group that use Facebook regularly — and could provide valuable data for these research questions. The method also has advantages, as discussed above. Having the survey cover many different geographical areas will capture possible regional differences in Facebook use across the country.

It could also easily be adapted and expanded to cover global trends using the same methodology. Not only can the procedure be adapted to cover more areas, but wider age ranges as well.

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