We're in a friendship recession: social media must provide true connections

Snap exec: We’re in a friendship recession

Social platforms are at risk of a failure of their purpose if they neglect the original reason for people to be online, which is to connect.

Where do you find your friends these days? In the coffee shop or pub? Hanging out at work or school? Or mostly online? After all, we’re now global citizens. It’s perfectly possible to have friends we talk to almost daily yet who live on the other side of the world.

In a pre-digital age, it was a lot harder to maintain those connections. How come then, when technology is making it so easy to connect, many of us report having fewer close friends than ever?

Research presented at our recent IAB Upfronts, showed that 12% of people admitted to having no close friends in 2021, compared to just 3%, 30 years before. [American Perspectives Survey, 2021 vs Gallup, 1990.] And that same research suggests that those of us with 10 friends or more has dropped from a third to just 13%.

What’s going on?

We’re in a friendship recession

First, we need to recognise that a lot of our activity — and indeed our connections — online aren’t about friendship anymore. If you recall Friends Reunited, one of the first platforms to help people connect digitally with their friends, it was about rediscovering old school pals.

The early days of connecting online were more friend-oriented, hanging out digitally and catching up. You’d post pics of your kids and tag each other, share pics of holidays with your family group (also making it a handy place to keep your photo albums in general) and perhaps use it to arrange meet ups with old friends. Pre messaging apps of course.

But then sharing online became performative. It became about sharing our most perfect selves, and only the best highlights as people chased approval through likes, comments, and followers, creating more of a distance between people than ever as their curated lives seemed so far removed from our own reality.

Moreover, when you consider that the number of stable social relationships people are cognitively able to maintain at once is 150 (also known as Dunbar’s number), and the fact that many people can have upwards of 300 online followers, you realise that it’s unlikely they are having regular or daily interactions with the people they’re following.

I believe it’s these things combined that have helped lead us into a friendship recession.

What does this mean now?

In the wake of an era of endless scrolling and polished posts, younger generations are preferring closed networks, ephemeral messaging that disappear just like real conversations do, and no public likes or follower counts, building more authentic environments for themselves online and building stronger connections with their friends and family as a result. And according to our research, we know that people are more likely to be receptive to the contents of an advert because they are in a happy mindset.

Meanwhile, new data from Global Web Index shows that half of daily millennial Snapchatters in the UK (that’s people aged 25-34) are not on TikTok daily, whilst over a third (31%) are not on Instagram every day. Additionally, 44% of 16-24 year olds who use Snapchat every day, do not use WhatsApp daily.

While there is no suggestion people are backing only one horse, there is proof that they are being far more selective over where they spend their time online. And I think it’s because people want to get back to the real purpose of why they download social apps in the first place — to connect with others.

The more social platforms skew towards this passive content, the less successful they will be at maintaining those ties that bind and I’d argue this is a failure of our purpose.

To maintain connection, the raison d’être of online communities, we have to give people the tools to connect. We have to make engagement fun, authentic and attractive. It must be an active part of their lives, adding to the sum of their daily experience, not just sucking time from it.

Those tools work best when they’re interactive — fun filters that encourage sharing, content that is truly user-generated and likely to make friends and family smile. Think of the number of Wolverine filters flying around this Halloween. Nothing says connection quite like a message that makes you look adorably silly.

The friendship recession is real. As people retreat into their internal lives, we need to give them a reason to share and a reason to interact.

It’s all too easy to allow time and geography to get in the way of connection, so why not use the platforms we have to bring people closer together.

Connecting online is by its very nature without borders. Let’s reach out and boost those friendship numbers, but in a much more meaningful way.

Fintan Gillespie, director of UK business solutions at Snap Inc.

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