Internet-based communication tools are increasingly likely to mediate our relationships as social networking sites become more popular and navigating online social environments becomes an important skill.
In this context, the distinction between the celebrity world and the everyday world is being eroded. The dissolution of this boundary is observable in two distinct trends: the development and explosive popularity of so-called reality television, and the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies like social networking sites.
Relatively few people have had any direct interpersonal interaction with Britney Spears, Brad Pitt or Kelly Clarkson, yet many could claim intimate knowledge of these individuals’ daily lives. In fact, some individuals may see photos of Gisele Bündchen and Heidi Klum more frequently than photos of their own distant friends or even family members.
Web 2.0 refers to a changing orientation between online content producers, consumers and Web technologies. People without special technical skills are now able to interact with mass audiences via such platforms as blogs, media sharing sites like YouTube and such networking sites as Facebook.
On the traditional mass media side, reality television has become a dominating component of the contemporary television environment. It focuses on the (purportedly) unscripted interaction of nonprofessional actors who are often framed as “ordinary people” and is an incredibly popular genre of television. The transformation of regular folks into celebrities—whose every move is worthy of a mass audience’s attention—is a powerful concept.
This relationship between the content of mass media and cultural attitudes is among the most examined issues in mass communication. Much of this research stems from theories suggesting that modeling is a process whereby people observe others, interpret the observed behavior and adjust their own behavior in response.
Such observational learning may be intentional, but it occurs in a wide range of contexts—indeed, wherever an individual is able to observe others’ behavior. The wide adoption of networking sites among the largest demographic of reality TV viewers—young adults—suggests significant potential for interrelated media behavior.
I have conducted a series of studies showing a relationship between reality television consumption and a range of behaviors online. Heavy reality television viewers spend more time on networking sites, have larger mediated networks, share more photos of themselves and have larger proportions of their networks consisting of people they have never actually met face to face. This uninhibited “friending” behavior is consistent with the kinds of relationships celebrities accrue.
This research is founded on the premise that the confluence of the rising popularity of both reality TV and Web 2.0 applications has resulted in a fundamental shift regarding people’s roles as media content consumers and producers. The evidence from my research suggests that behavior traditionally associated with celebrities is being adopted en masse, as people’s interpersonal communication becomes increasingly mediated.
With the proliferation of networking sites and the aggregation and documentation of comprehensive social networks, future research should address how the contemporary definition of “friend” is changing. And as the debate continues about whether Internet-based communication tools are enhancing our social lives or restricting them, additional research is needed to explore people’s motivations to connect and, ultimately, whether these connections have utility for users.
The question remains: Are people with expansive online networks better off? Perhaps these tools are simply the latest platform on which people compete for attention and power.
Michael A. Stefanone concentrates his research in group-level computer-mediated communication.