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How Do We Sustain Relationships

Written by: Bill Sherman on Saturday, 31 May 2008, 5:46 AM

When you have a global relationship, it’s hard to join someone for breakfast or afternoon coffee. Yet, it’s interesting to see which tools we use. Those of us who use e-mail, tend to use it a whole lot to sustain relationships. A recent study looks at how people in one town in Canada use network-sustaining tools.

Interestingly, this study doesn’t include blogs or VOIP tools such as Skype (which reduces the cost of international calls to virtually zero). It doesn’t include Twitter, IM, MMO chats, photo-sharing, and text messaging. As you look as this data, remember, we’re looking at only a fraction of the modern communication modes.

“Does Distance Matter in the Age of the Internet?” (Mok, Carrasco, and Wellman: 2008).

Although email gets the lions-share of hype and analysis these days, it is the relationship that is the most important – and not the medium of communication. Most active ties communicate by multiple means. The exceptions are the obvious extremes: neighbours and alters living 3,000 miles apart.

Despite the distance-insensitivity of the Internet, distance still matters for the overall relationship. Yet, different modes of communication have different sensitivities to distance:

(a) The frequency of email shows a cusp point at 3,000 miles: within 3,000 miles, distance decreases by 0.1% for each percentage increase in distance; beyond 3,000 miles, the frequency of contact increases at 2.1%.

(b) Face-to-face contact displays a marked drop at 5 miles. Beyond 5 miles, the frequency of face-to-face contact drops twice as fast as those relationships that live within 5 miles. Not surprisingly, neighbours meet each other face-to-face the most often.

(c) Phone contact is half as sensitive to distance as face-to-face contact. Its sensitivity to distance drops modestly beyond 100 miles.

Both face-to-face and phone are high-touch/low-leverage modes. We have so many other digital tools that allow us to leverage our contact.

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