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Caring is Not Sharing: How To Be a Good Friend on Facebook

People use Facebook for a lot of things, but keeping in touch with (so-called) “friends” has to be near the top of the list. There are lots of ways to use Facebook, but it’s possible that some ways of maintaining friendships are better than others. For example, you can simply keep tabs on your friend’s activities by stalking his or her Facebook wall. Though a bit passive, monitoring your friend has the benefit of keeping you informed and allows you to have things to talk about the next time you are both together.1 Another, less passive, option is to engage in maintenance behaviors,2 like posting something on a friend’s wall that offers positive encouragement and support, being open and showing empathy, or generally letting your friend know you’re thinking about him or her. On the surface these all seem like good options, but let’s see what the research says…

How They Did It

To determine the best friendship maintenance strategy, researchers surveyed over 100 pairs of young adult Facebook friends from a college campus.3 Based on participants’ responses to a longer questionnaire about relationship maintenance strategies, the researchers identified two main strategies: “sharing,” which included updating their statuses, posting emotional updates and hoping friends respond, giving thoughts on things in the news, and generally using public messages. “Caring” included sending friends happy messages, offering support when a friend posts something sad, or giving congratulations for good news, and generally using private messages. The researchers also measured “surveilling” behaviors, like checking your friends’ pages for updates and watching their interactions with others without commenting, along with friendship outcomes, such as satisfaction and how much the participant liked their friend (e.g., “my friend is one of the most likeable people I know.”).

What They Found

Specifically, the researchers wanted to know how each friend’s sharing, caring, or surveilling influenced friendship satisfaction and liking. Individuals who engaged in more caring maintenance behaviors were more satisfied with the friendship, though it did not influence their friends’ satisfaction. When either friend engaged in caring, they both experienced more liking. Sharing’s effects were not as positive. Specifically, sharing was associated with less satisfaction for both friends. People's own sharing did not relate to liking, but as their friends shared more, they experienced less liking. Finally, those who engaged in more surveilling experienced more satisfaction and liking; however, the partner being surveilled did not experience increases in either outcome.

What the Results Mean For You

It turns out that Facebook-stalking your friends a little goes a long way…for you. Simply by checking out your friends’ updates you can feel more satisfied in your friendships and like your friends more. Unfortunately, your friends don’t benefit from you stalking their pages, likely because they have no way of knowing you are doing it. To help your friendships, you should engage in some relationship maintenance behaviors. However, don’t overshare. Feeling the urge to take a snapshot of your meal or the unusually high/low temperature on your car’s dashboard? Don’t. Rather than sharing, it is much more important to show that you care with some thoughtful and meaningful interactions. If you see your friend had a bad day, offer support. If they shared an important accomplishment, offer your heartfelt congratulations. When you do have those meaningful interactions, you should probably keep them private rather than broadcasting them to everyone on Facebook. In short, caring is much more important than sharing. 

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1Trottier, D. (2012). Interpersonal surveillance on social media. Canadian Journal of Communication, 37, 319–332.

2Wright, K. B. (2004). On-line relational maintenance strategies and perceptions of partners within exclusively Internet-based and primarily Internet-based relationships. Communication Studies,55, 239–253.

3McEwan, B. (2013). Sharing, caring, and surveilling: An actor–partner interdependence model examination of Facebook relational maintenance strategies. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 863- 869. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0717

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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