Scientists have finally turned to the Internet to study why people create and maintain social networks, as it has made it possible to research such issues on a large scale basis.
It is said that people form associations because they get something from the interaction, or the person is nearby or is close to them in proximity, age or gender.
Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, studied the massive online virtual world Second Life to test the truthfulness of such theories.
The researcher says that Second Life, where more than 15 million accounts are registered, differs from other massive online multiple-player games in that there is no real goal-people create virtual avatars of themselves and then chat with other people, and buy and sell items.
With a view to making it safe for minors, Second Life created Teen Grid, where only teenage players can socialize.
Contractor said that the aim of the study was to find out how successful could such a world be.
"We wanted to ask basic questions about communication theory-to what extent are people joining groups because their friends are part of the group? To what extent are they becoming friends with people in the groups they've joined? We don't have good ways of tracking that in the real world," he said.
Searching through vast amounts of anonymized data, the researchers found that teens had online friendships that were disproportionately with people in their immediate geographic area-likely with people they already knew.
"That finding really went against a lot of the media hype. People were worried about helpless teenagers talking with strangers, but that is not what we found. This is the first time this has been based on solid evidence," Contractor said.
The researchers further revealed that teens also tended to be friends with the friends of their friends, not with people who weren't part of their network already.
When teenagers turn 20, they must leave the Teen Grid of Second Life and go on to the regular Second Life, leaving their entire network of friends behind.
"This provides a nice natural experiment to see the transition of being suddenly severed from one network and being introduced to another," Contractor says.
He has revealed that he will continue researching virtual worlds like Second Life.
"What we've found so far is that technology isn't changing our networks-it's reinforcing them," he says.
Contractor made a presentation on his team's findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Chicago on Friday.