Social networks are nowadays the “tools” that have the most significant impact on our way of living in relationhip. And even if they convey a communication that has been defined by some as "disembodied" - which should be the proper world for “virtual”- eliminating the interaction of the body, they are increasingly becoming an instrument for those same bodies to meet, live, and share various events and experiences. There are many people who, through social networks, and the web in general, get to know each other, or meet and start to go out together. As a consequence, it happens that the relationship is not limited only to the screen, but actually through the internet we are able to build real networks of solidarity and participation across various areas of our life. All over the world there are initiatives that started through the Internet and developed through social networks, allowing families to exchange not only reflections and experiences, but also to help as well as support each other in their daily lives.
Solidarity that starts from the web: some cases
The Family network, for example, can be considered as a network of families. It is intended both as a network of information for parents and as a network for professionals and organizations that provide support to families.
A Dutch study ( Family and Friends: Which Types of Personal Relationships Go Together in a Network? published in “Social Indicators Research”, June 2016, Vol. 127, p. 809-826) analyzed the dynamics of relationships within family networks, highlighting the factors that influence the construction of more or less significant as well as effective networks.
It has been shown that the actions people undertake with these personal contacts, the roles contacts play in their lives and the support they provide, differ between the various types of people in their personal network. For example, family members are more likely than friends to provide unconditional support, while friends and other unfamiliar people are more likely to share activities, interests and also to connect people with new ideas. As a result, people with a varied personal network may generally be more successful in meeting their needs for sociability, companionship and support than people with a homogeneous personal network, who may be more likely to experience feelings of social isolation or a lack of social support, or companionship.
The different types of relationships, therefore, may or may not coexist in personal networks, and in any case, affect the way in which these relationships are experienced.
The study also showed that the extension of personal networks and the inclination to participate in family networks depend and grow according to the level of education, religious affiliation and sex. By the way, women were considered more prone to these kinds of networks.
Personal networks and family networks
Personal networks in modern Western societies are generally composed of both family members and members who are not relatives. Research shows that family members foster contact with other types of family members. Therefore, the networks of families expand and often seek the encounter, as well as the connection, for purposes of solidarity, volunteerism and to share experiences.
“Virtual” social networks become in this way an instrument of “real” connections, and are often seen as a remedy to the individualism and isolation to which many experience. It happens, then, that the network is used to build relationships and friendships that hopefully can be transformed into real ones: made of meetings between people in the flesh. On the web you can find and contact an old friend from school, the distant cousin, the high school professor, and this happens especially to the generation which was born in the second half of the 20th century; or millennials and post-millennials can connect with their trendiest youtuber or the influencer with most followers..
“Virtuality”, now, is no longer just evasion, but it appears as a dimension of reality that deeply affects the structure and organization of our mind and the way we live our lives. For this reason, when we talk about social networks we prefer to refer to the 'hybrid social networks', that is, the ones constituted by virtual and real bonds at the same time. Scientists speak of a new social space, 'interreality'.. Facebook, for example, represents an environment in which online relationships are also based on offline ones and are mixed with new relationships, whose purpose, in some cases, is the sharing of a common project.
Sometimes virtual communities coexist with the real ones, amplifying them, or they precede them increasing the opportunities and creating interactions between people who do not know each other, or come together to achieve a common social or even economic goal (for example, crowdfunding). Several events in which thousands of people were called to action through the 'virtual square' and gathered in the real squares have recently come to the attention of the media. Consider the echo of the ecological actions of Greta Thunberg who, starting from the web, and having the support of traditional media, has managed to gather in the squares millions of people around the world.
However, most people belonging to all age groups and generations are not satisfied with the virtual relationship and seek, as far as possible, the encounter, real, or rather, the physical one. Thousands of teenagers wait in endless queues to see live, shake hands or take a selfie with a famous person. And then there are the 'flash mobs', the spontaneous gatherings, invented at the beginning of the century and spread thanks to mobile phones - even before they became smartphones -, messages, and emails.
The speed of diffusion from 'person to person', the search for spaces for aggregation and social sharing, have contributed to the success of many events for which, starting from the virtual square, people meet and populate the real squares.
Then it came the hashtag, an immediate and virtual aggregation tool. Each hashtag is a square where everyone can express his own idea and see what others say, and decide to meet. Thousands of people, gathered through particular hashtags, meet in real squares to share moments of prayer and solidarity, as it happened, for example, after terrorist attacks.
Perhaps we can really say that there is no longer a difference between the real world and the virtual one. It is a fact that, beyond the greater or lesser degree of computer literacy, real life also, and inevitably, passes through online contacts and all this, in the end, risks isolating us, but often ends up truly uniting us.
What are the risks and the benefits? Should we be concerned or can we take advantage of it?
The characteristic of social networks in being accelerators and organizers of relationships and sociality should not necessarily frighten us. They happen to bring so many positive experiences and they are capable of enriching life as well as relationships both on and off the screen with affectivity and deep meaning. All that social communication can transmit and convey will then depend mainly on the person, the undisputed protagonist of the relationship, of the online, and of the offline one.