Social Media Potential For Building Meaningful Connections
As human beings, we long to have something in common with our friends. While existing social media platforms have algorithms in place, these are more focused on content–person instead of person–person dynamic.
TikTok personalizes your For You Page based on the videos you’ve interacted with before, making you spend hours on end scrolling through videos. Twitter offers you tweets on interesting topics and recommends things from people you have followed or never heard of before (the last type of interaction is, unfortunately, a hit-or-miss). Instagram uses target to introduce new brands, reels to imitate a TikTok-like feeling, and a ‘discover’ page to show you pictures you might be interested in (liked photos of a raccoon twice? Here are ten more!).
Overall, existing social media apps are largely unfit for farming and properly maintaining long-lasting, meaningful connections online.
That is the reason we decided to research the subject of creating meaningful connections online. Up until this point, due to the lack of a specifically designed app that would help facilitate connection formation and its maintenance, social media's potential for building meaningful connections remained unexplored.
Current social media platforms are largely unfit for creating meaningful connections online
The majority of the articles discussed using social media among friends that were made offline, disregarding friendships that were fully formed and maintained online. As we worked¹, we took on a previously under-researched topic in hopes of achieving our main project aim — figuring out what helps people build meaningful connections online. For this research, we defined meaningful connections as a person’s top ~3 friends — people among the closest friends of a person.
With our theoretical and practical findings, we offer a new viewpoint on the formation of long-lasting friendships online.
McKenna, Green, and Gleason (2002) argue that the unique structure of the Internet and such communities may provide a “head start” to relationship formation by allowing people to meet others with similar ‘niche’ interests, which would otherwise be hard to do if restricted to one geographical location. With this initial shared interest base established, users can move more quickly to discussing other topics and discovering other shared interests and values. (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2013).
Social networking sites can encourage new friendships, so long as they are pursued only with honesty and goodwill, and without the expectation that they will always remain exclusively ‘behind the screen’ (Forbes, 2016).
To better understand the process of friendship formation, we divided it into four stages: noticing and attraction, initial contact, emotional connection, and maintenance. Each of the stages discussed different equally important topics: self-presentation online, compliments and assistance as a basis for acquaintance, creation of intimacy, and provision of social support.
Social networks provide possibilities for friendship, but it remains unclear what factors ensure that online communication grows into a meaningful relationship. To find out, we made it our key focus of this research.
How Meaningful Connections are Formed
We conducted 17 interviews with people who considered each other to be in the top 3 friends and who had met in a digital environment.
We asked our interviewees what inevitably made them ‘click’ with each other. Responses acknowledged some sort of similarities — ranging from similar values, personality, lifestyles, hobbies, and interests to working or studying at the same place. Romantical partners also pointed out mutual attraction to each other (formed from social presence).
Challenges of Social Media
A common thread among most interviews, however, were the challenges of creating meaningful connections online. Although our respondents were pre-selected to match our requirement of having met their friend online, not offline, most of the respondents brought out significant challenges in enabling this kind of connection.
Most respondents had met on different social media platforms (see the image of social media platforms interviewees used to connect) which proves a lack of uniformity and a lack of working solutions for creating meaningful connections. Respondents brought out the element of luck or coincidence that brought them together with their partner. Some even brought out specific features on these platforms that made it more complicated to connect with each other.
In spite of the challenges, we discussed what has helped our interviewees to create meaningful connections. All of the answers included some degree of intimacy and communication required, which goes in line with our theoretical findings and confirms that emotional connection between friends is necessary. For example, if meeting in person was not an option due to distance, a pair could FaceTime and take part in a shared activity (e.g. watching a movie, cooking, etc.) to ensure consistent and meaningful communication.
Our interviewees were asked if they had any suggestions for others on building meaningful connections online. Their answers reinforced the need for regular communication, openness, and honesty (which is often hard to find on the current platforms).
Envisioning a better social media app
One must always be conscious of the limitations of social media apps they use as the main source of communication, which is why we dug deeper and studied potential alternatives to existing platforms. We have developed ideas for social media apps designed specifically to form and maintain friendships online and visualized them in mockups.
The purpose of the apps we thought of ranged from video chatting, finding a study buddy/group, and discussing various topics in books to matching based on feelings and desires and searching for people to do your favourite activities with (cooking, art classes, etc.).
While each idea had something unique, there was always one common factor — the existence of the match, of the shared interests. The match could be based on a topic a person wants to discuss (e.g. literature), universities they are studying at or learning techniques they are using, activities they took part in, and people they interacted with.
After three months of work on this project, we gained a deeper understanding of how meaningful connections are formed virtually.
Tied together within a framework of connection formation, our theoretical and practical findings helped us develop ideas for a better social media app that could be used to create and maintain meaningful connections online. Most importantly, our findings suggested that regular communication, deep conversations, and shared activities are vital for maintaining a friendship online.
We also found out that the current social media platforms are largely unfit for creating meaningful connections online, however, they help with noticing and the initial contact as well as maintaining relationships later on.
As a result of our work, our findings and developed social media app ideas offer a new perspective on social media's potential for building meaningful connections. More than that, we hope that our findings will be used for further research on this understudied topic.
 The research was conducted at Tallinn University during LIFE project — multidisciplinary coursework. Authors: Eva Dyachuk, Ivan Strigin, Sohrab Quraishi, Anneli Põldaru, Maria Miriame Russo, Lisandra Kask, Geily Nurmeots, Julia Sidorova, Ilea Liidia Peckham, Sifat-E-Afzal, Isabella Shuxin Savela, Helena Jõgi. Supervisor: Erik Ehasoo.