The growth of online computer-mediated social networks and the shrinking of real-world social networks nearly coincide in time. Both are examples of social networks, but nevertheless they are quite independent. We can easily import our real-life friendships into online social networks, but the opposite direction—exporting online friendships into real-life friendships—is much harder. “Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at The University of Arizona and Duke University” (source).
An interesting question is whether online services are causing decay of real-life social networks or just filling the emptiness caused by extinction of their real-life counterparts due to other reasons. I tend to think in terms of the latter.
Real-life social networks were vital before markets became efficient as people had to form reliable social connections for their survival. In the absense of money and related infrastructure you have to rely on your family and friends. Your wealth is literally determined by the number of friends you have. In countries with weak market economy, like Russia, social networks had no substitute in serving this function until recently. Another important function served by real-life social networks is that they were the main source of news and useful information for people. The advent of mass media weakened this function as well: many people now trust radio and TV more than what their friends say. Finally, many people now turn to Google as a replacement for real-life social search (asking a friend) to solve their real-life problems. This further weakened real-life connections as they don’t serve this function anymore and there is less opportunity to interact with friends.