Advances in Applied Sociology
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 309-312
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 309
Perceived Difficulty of Friendship Maintenance Online:
Geographic Factors
Kristie Holmes
School of Social Work, Union University, Jackson, USA
Received August 17th, 2012; revised September 20th, 2012; accepted October 3rd, 2012
Geographic location has an effect on the perceived ease of friendship maintenance online and may reflect
physical space. Participants from the Northeastern United States rated maintaining friendships online as
more difficult than those from other regions. Those with the highest anxiety level ratings were from the
largest and most densely populated areas (metropolitan) and those who were the least anxious about their
image (both online and offline) were from rural areas with the least population density. Those residing in
metropolitan areas were the most trusting of online information posted by others and the town/small city
group were the least trusting of others’ online posted information (similar to the urban group), making
those from rural areas nearly as trusting of others’ information as the metropolitan group, though probably
the result of entirely different influences.
Keywords: Social Networking; Friendship; Geography; Relationship; Perceptions; Online
Whatever may be its present shortcomings and defects,
there can be no doubt that wireless telegraphy—even over
great distances—has come to stay, and will not only stay, but
continue to advance. If it should become possible to transmit
waves right round the world, it may be found that the electrical
energy travelling round all parts of the globe may be made to
concentrate at the antipodes of the sending station. In this way
it may some day be possible to send to such distance lands by
means of a very small amount of electrical energy, and
therefore at a correspondingly small expense.1 (p. 221)
When online relationship maintenance and social networks
were not ubiquitous, it was questioned whether the advent of
online relationships equated the “end of geography” (Graham,
1998). This researcher wanted to explore the question of
whether or not geography played a role in participant perceptions
on the ease of friendship maintenance as supported by online
networks. In previous work that focused on traditional relationship
maintenance as affected by geography, Liben-Nowell, Novak,
Kumar, Raghavan, and Tomkins (2005) found that the
probability of friendship decreases not only with distance but
even more defined by the number of people who lived closer to
the participant. Onnela, Arbesman, Gonzales, Barabasi, and
Christakis (2011) described geography as a constraint to group
formation, in that people form ties through connections of their
own friends. Further, they found that geography maintains its
power as a way to compartmentalize groups, and referred to
Lambiotte’s, Blondel, Kerchove, Huens, Prieur, Smoreda and
Van Dooren’s (2008) study that found that in telephone contact,
the duration of a phone call increases with distance. And while
phone calls to closer (geographically) friends are more
numerous, the farther geographical distance encourages less
frequent but longer conversations, demonstrating that even with
technology, physical distance indeed has an effect on rela-
tionship maintenance. Gilbert, Karahalios, and Sandvig (2010)
maintained that “a priori social patterns manifest themselves in
social media even when technology could be used to change the
patterns” (p. 1383).
Hypothesis 1: Participants from the Northeastern United
States will rate maintaining friendships online as more difficult
than those from other regions.
The advent of relationship maintenance through online
means was met with great expectations that it would completely
revolutionize relationships and perhaps even “do away” with
physical geography all together. While electronic maintenance
has certainly revolutionized a mode of interpersonal connection,
surprisingly to many, much remains the same. When spe-
cifically investigating geographical influence on behaviors in
this paradigm, geography seems to matter in two ways.
First, users “tag” themselves electronically via their smart-
phone GPS with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or through
tagging themselves in photos or by others in location-based
social networks or by friends on sites like Facebook in order to
share information among their network or “followers,”
essentially adding a GPS tracking device to oneself. Further,
most location-based search terms place a user within miles of
the searched geographical space.
Scellato, Mascolo, Musolesi, and Latora (2010) found that
users trended toward having short-range social connectedness
and that their geographical location was confined to clusters.
Backstrom, Sun, and Marlow (2010) realized that even when
search queries for places such as the Grand Canyon were
analyzed, most searches came from within 50 miles of the
actual park.
Second, geographic distance, despite the global nature of the
internet, still clusters people within distinct geographical
boundaries. Technology “··· has decreased the importance of
geographic proximity in social interactions, transforming our
world into a global village with a borderless society. We argue
for the opposite: while technology has undoubtedly increased
the overall level of communication, this increase has been most
pronounced for local social ties” (Goldenberg & Levy, 2009: p.
1). Mok and Wellman and Carrasco (2010) questioned how
much distance mattered before the internet, and found that
physical distance seems to matter whether or not there was
internet, although it has changed how relationships persist over
time. For example, friendships that may have stayed snugly in
memory as dim high school recollections may now enjoy a
repartee online reflective of relationships and habits from the
past, when discussing recent news stories or seeking advice on
childrearing items. Whether these rekindled relationships are
positive, neutral, or negative will of course depend on how
much old, renewed, but previously abandoned relationships
bump up against the present.
Shaw (2010) discussed the relevance of Hägerstrand’s (1970)
concept of “bundle” within the context of conceptual restraints,
meaning that individuals perform tasks or a specific activity in
unison in order to complete an outcome. Shaw updates this
concept by linking the notion of online social networks with the
linking of physical locations to a virtual one. “We could argue
that locations of nodes and links in a virtual network are not
relevant according to a topological perspective. This is true
only if we are interested in the connectivity and flows between
different nodes on social networks” (p. 2). He went on to
illustrate by stating that someone who wants to complete a task
with a friend who lives 1000 miles away is unlikely to suggest
meeting at a local coffee shop.
Recent literature on the geographical location of users of
social media is fairly meager, with the same literature reviews
pointing to the same handful of studies. However, as supported
by Backstrom et al.’s (2010), observations from even the
earliest studies have not changed: “the further you get from a
person, the lower likelihood you will find her friends there” (p.
3). These researchers also found that those who lived in cities
were more likely to have friends scattered throughout the
country. Gilbert, Karahalios, and Sandvig (2008) found results
in a related topic when they found that the strength of
relationship ties of urbanites were more loosely defined than
those from rural communities, and concluded that rural and
urban residents use social media in different ways. Rural
participants claimed fewer friends, and those friends were
located close to their place of residence. Further, rural
participants maintained higher privacy settings than their urban
counterparts, revealing a lower level of trust in others. This
researcher was interested in the relationship between user
location (geographical) and possible differences in perception
regarding relationship maintenance online, and found that
existing literature was lacking in answers.
Hypothesis 2: Participants from rural areas will be less
trusting of others’ personal information posted online than
those from metropolitan areas.
Social Networking Analysis Theory
Social network analysis is grounded in the systematic analy-
sis of empirical data, although it was once seen as a method of
inquiry rather than a stand-alone theory. People now actively
think of their social networks (how and whom they are con-
nected to in real life) the way sociologists have for many dec-
ades because of the influence of online social networks such as
Facebook and Twitter. These networks have long been re-
searched by sociologists as an acknowledged way to maintain
relationships (Keller, 1968) share information, and fit in with
those surrounding oneself in a community (Freeman, 2004).
The biggest difference in then and now is the ease with which
one is included in or isolated from particular networks, and the
easier tracking by researchers with an eye for electronic data
mining that is now available in numbers that would have been
incomprehensible 30 years ago (Butts, 2009). Wellman (2008)
stated, “Thirty years ago, I could not even sell the term ‘social
network’ to sociologists” (p. 2).
Granovetter in 1973 defined a tie and its strength as related
to an investment of time, emotional intensity, mutual confi-
dence, and reciprocity. Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950)
simplified the idea of propinquity by showing that the term
meant that, in the simplest terms, people befriend their
neighbors. Festinger’s social comparison theory ties in further
with how people view themselves (and the contents of one’s
social networking profile) with regards to their felt perceptions
about how others are superior or inferior to themselves.
Still, however, even with all of the data available, it seems
that people’s networks, although globally available in a way
never before imagined, generally support very localized rela-
tionships (within driving distance). Rather than “the end of
geography” (Graham, 1998) as we know it, at this point it ap-
pears that while the availability helps one forge new connec-
tions, at its core, electronic social networking in many ways
continues to reflect the way things have historically been with
relationships online reflecting the connections one has in real
time. People continue to make comparisons of themselves in
relationship to others in the community. This study explores
what this researcher views as simply a newer mode of com-
munication and how participants perceive its role in supporting
or taking away from relationships. How close ties are to begin
with may play a role, as Gilbert (2012) suggested, in that the
perceived ease or difficulty may depend on the intimacy of the
relationship in the first place. It was suspected by this re-
searcher that, in the end, while technology changes at a rapid
pace as do the options available to communicate, the more in-
timate the relationship, the more likely the desire to prefer
face-to-face interaction. Although technology such as Skype
(free online video conferencing software) is easily accessible to
most users of social networking technology in their own homes,
most people at this point don’t prefer to use Skype to commu-
nicate “faux face to face” over other electronic means. Tak-
hteyev, Gruzd, and Wellman (2012) stated simply, “Social
contacts benefit from physical proximity” (p. 1). Physical ge-
ography then, of course, would have an effect on the perceived
ease of maintaining relationships via electronic means.
An online survey was distributed through Facebook via a
web-based platform, targeting ages 18 and over (Appendix A).
Participants were from 38 states in the United States and 24
participants resided outside of the United States. This sample
was heavily Caucasian and well educated. The survey consisted
primarily of closed-ended quantitative questions.
Of the 296 participants, 81 identified as male, 209 identified
as female, 1 identified as “other”, and 5 declined to answer the
question. During analysis, the researcher decided to eliminate
the responses from the participant who identified with the
“other” category in order to restrict the research analysis to two
sexes as opposed to three when exploring gender.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Participants were asked to respond to 28 multiple-choice
questions by selecting a single answer they felt best reflected
their opinion and 1 open-ended question where they could de-
scribe their opinion in their own words with regard to how they
view the positive, neutral, or negative effects of technology on
their relationships. The survey was designed with a non-op-
tional informed consent agreement, which stated that partici-
pants must be age 18 or over to take the survey and made it
clear that the survey was completely voluntary and anonymous.
The survey included contact information for the Institutional
Review Board (IRB) as well as for the researchers so that par-
ticipants were able to pose questions, comments, or complaints
if needed. IP addresses were not collected, and with the excep-
tion of the informed consent agreement, every item was volun-
tary and could be skipped without interrupting the rest of the
survey. The snowball sampling technique was used to encour-
age Facebook users to repost the survey link on their pages to
further distribute the survey.
Twitter was used to further disseminate the survey, in addi-
tion to professional contact emails that went out to the re-
searcher’s network as a separate collector of data. Statistical
tests used were independent t tests, ANOVA, Levines, LSD,
Bonferonni, and Pplot. Descriptive statistics and chi square
were used to analyze results, using (SPSS) IBM 19.0 software.
Significance was set at p = > .05. However, there were many
instances of levels of p = .06 or p = .07 levels of significance,
which this researcher considered as borderline significance in
these findings and therefore reportable.
Geographical Location and Perceived Ease of
Friendship Maintenance Online
Statistical analysis on regional location in the United States
and its influence on the perception of friendship maintenance
was completed with ANOVA and LSD post hoc testing
(F[4,230] = 2.44, p = .04) and found that there were significant
dif- ferences between regional groups in the United States with
designations of West, Southwest, Southeast, Midwest, and
Northeast designations.
There was a statistically significant difference between par-
ticipants from the West with participants from the Midwest
(mean difference .27, p = .03) as well as the West from the
Northeast (mean difference .40, p = .04) with participants
from Western states finding it easier to maintain friendships
There was a statistically significant difference between par-
ticipants from the Southwest with participants from the Mid-
west (mean difference .80, p = .04) as well as the Southwest
from the Northeast (mean difference .93, p = .02) and a statis-
tically significant difference between Midwestern state partici-
pants (mean difference = .27, p = .03) and Northeast partici-
pants (mean difference = .38, p = .04). Finally, Northeastern
participants had a statistically significant difference between
those from the West (mean difference = .20, p = .04) and the
Southwest (mean difference .41, p = .02).
The range of ease of maintaining a friendship online was 1
(easier) to 3 (harder). The Western states M was 1.72, South-
west M was 1.20, Southeast M was 1.85, Midwest M was 2.13
and the Northeast M was 2.13, making the Midwest and north-
east the groups to find maintaining their friendships online the
most difficult. However, the neutral option with the range of 2
maintains that maintaining friendships online and in person is
the same level of difficulty as maintaining a face-to-face
Metropolitan, Urban, Town and Rural Residency
When exploring basic descriptive statistics, ratings for levels
of anxiety related to image maintenance (both online and off-
line) are higher in areas considered metropolitan (M = 4.5) with
similar ratings from those who reside in urban areas or small
cities and town in the middle with (M = 4.41 to 4.47). Those
who reported living in a rural area had a mean rating of 3.95 for
anxiety related to image (Figure 1).
When an ANOVA was run on Metropolitan, Urban, Town,
and Rural Residency groups according to their level of trust in
what other people post online, there was a statistical signifi-
cance. ANOVA was run along with LSD and Bonferonni post
hoc tests (F[3,266] = 4.59; p = .004) with borderline statistical
significant difference between the Rural Group (We are lucky
to have a stoplight!) and Town/Small City Group (We have a
restaurant chain or two) (mean difference = .28, p = .004) as
well as the Urban (mean difference = .30, p = .003). The range
of trust rating was 1 (low) to 4 (high). The Metropolitan group
mean was 3.25, the Urban group mean was 3.15, the
Town/Small City group mean was 2.84 and the Rural group
mean was 3.12, thus making the least trusting group, the
Town/Small City group, the most trusting of others’ online
posted information, and those in metropolitan areas most trust-
ing of online information posted by others (see Figure 2).
Figure 1.
Anxiety over image.
Figure 2.
Trust of information posted online.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 311
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Figure 3.
Participant Choices for Population Density.
As theorized by Hypothesis 1, participants from the North-
eastern United States rated maintaining friendships online as
more difficult than those from other regions. Geographical
location seems to affect the perceived ease of friendship main-
tenance online and may reflect the areas’ small physical space
(small states in a clustered area). In this region of the United
States, driving across multiple state lines in a single day would
not be difficult. Perhaps physical geographic boundaries on a
smaller space affects one’s perception of distance, or even need
to maintain relationships online. According to the literature thus
far, most participant networks are within driving miles of their
Further, the type of environment one resides in has an effect
on how participants perceive their image as viewed by others.
Those with the highest anxiety level ratings are from the largest
and most densely populated areas (metropolitan), and those
who were the least anxious about their image (both online and
offline) were from rural areas with the least population density
(Figure 3).
As for Hypothesis 2, when analyzing trust levels of what
other people post online, the borders were not quite as clear.
Those residing in metropolitan areas were the most trusting of
online information posted by others and the Town/Small City
group were the least trusting of others’ online posted informa-
tion (similar to the Urban group), making those from rural areas
nearly as trusting of others’ information as the metropolitan
group. These trust levels may be the result of entirely different
influences, with those in metropolitan areas more likely to rely
on technology day in and day out and may generally be more
trusting of electronic social networks as a source of information.
On the other end of the spectrum, those in rural areas may be
more generally trusting of others due to the experience of re-
siding in communities that broker more trust due to their
physical proximity.
Much thanks to Macy Alligood and Elizabeth Wilson for
their time and assistance with this study.
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