Most research about Facebook these days paints a picture of a depressing place where people who don't really know you make you feel bad about yourself. But a new study confirms that it's actually very useful for its most basic, homespun purpose: helping young people keep in touch with their high school friends.
Researcher Kevin Johnston and his coauthors surveyed 572 college students in South Africa about their Facebook use and their "social capital," which is defined basically as the benefits they get from relationships with people. The researchers measured the students' social capital by asking questions like how much they felt a part of their college's community and how comfortable they'd be asking a high school acquaintance for a favor.
Heavy Facebook use, they found, was associated with several kinds of social capital, but the most significant correlation was with "maintained" social capital — essentially, the benefits of staying close with your existing friends from home. In addition to being able to ask for favors, students who used Facebook a lot were more likely to say they could find out about job opportunities or events in another town from high school friends or acquaintances.
Thinking of old friends in terms of "capital" may seem a bit cold, but of course these friendships have intrinsic value too. Johnston and his coauthors mention research on "friendsickness," or "the anguish caused by loss of contact with friends." Facebook may be able to mitigate this feeling, even when friends are far apart physically.
Previous research has backed up the importance of high school friends on Facebook. Researchers at Michigan State University, for example, found that undergrads thought high school friends made up the main "audience" of their Facebook profiles — 97% said these friends would see their profiles, while only about 15% said strangers would see them.
Of course, the idea that Facebook is useful for keeping up with childhood friends isn't news to anyone who's used to getting status updates from their former lab partner ten times a day. Still, its worthwhile to remember that the network isn't just a place where people make new, "virtual" (often understood as "fake") friends, but also a place where they keep up with their oldest real-life friends. And that act of keeping up can have both emotional and practical benefits.