In many developed countries most people have access to multiple channels of communication every day, such as a fix and mobile phone, email and other internet based channels such as IM, Skype or social networking websites. A good proportion of adults in Europe and USA will be using on average 4 channels a day. This is without counting traditional post and face to face exchanges. Many regular internet users have more than one email account, most social networking users have more than one personal page, in a few European countries there are more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants. But all of this is well known and well hyped. What is less well known is that with all these channels, devices, services, a user contacts on average the same 5 to 10 people 80% of the time.
The concentration of exchanges on very few partners is rarely reported by the press and media in general and often users themselves are not aware of it. The general view is that ICT has hugely increased the number of contacts, that internet based communication in particular has extended the number of friends and acquaintances people stay in contact with. Social networking sites in particular have given the illusion that it is possible not only to reacquaint with old friends but also to find new ones based on ones interests and tastes. Instant messaging and skype with their long lists of buddies have suggested that rapid exchanges with tens or hundreds of people is the norm. Popular media have also divulged the fear of children being constantly exposed to random encounters online in their pursuit of new online buddies. Commentators and popular sociologists have been discussing at length of the risks of having numerous but shallow conversations at the detriment of real profound relationships.
All of these beliefs have been generated by confounding the possibilities and functionalities offered by these new online services and the reality of peoples practices and needs. While it is true that buddy lists can contain hundreds of names, that facebook pages can be linked to tens of friends and that skype allows you to call whoever you see online, the vast majority of people has regular contact with only a tiny susbset of the people they know. This does not mean that they do not enjoy visualizing a big social network, seeing how many people they could potentially chat with or communicate with, just as most people find it essential to be always reachable with their mobile phone. The potential of contact is certainly providing many people a sense of belonging and connectedness but the reality of usage is focused on far fewer and far more significant relationships. Exactly those profound and continuous relationships of which commentators are announcing the decline.
Researchers in various universities and business research centers around the world who have systematically studied the daily use of mobile phones, IM or email are all reaching the same conclusion (Ling, Ito, Wellman, among others). New communication media are significantly contributing to strengthening core relationships. New channels are being used to intensify contacts with very significant relations. The main effect, I would add of new media is to extend the range of situations in which an individual can be in touch with the people she most cares for.
The intense number of exchanges that we have described above seem not only to be focused on few people but also are consistently and systematically related to certain types of contents. Once we exclude professional exchanges, personal mediated communication revolves around issues of awareness of each others state. Awareness of physical location, of emotional status, and of activities. Basically people are asking and informing about their whereabouts, their feelings, what they have done or are doing at the moment. Planning and coordination also accounts for many exchanges but often this corresponds to an extension of what we just described into mutual awareness of state allowing to coordinate encounters and activities (I am on my way and will be there in 15mns…).