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
“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.