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MySpace Friends May Not Be Real

Even though you might have a lot of "close" online friends, a new online survey finds in-person encounters remain the most important factor in forming close relationships.
Would you trust your online friends with your wallet? Your car keys? Your dog?

Hopefully not -- because those friends aren't real. OK, maybe they are real (as in real people) but the friendships -- even ones you like -- don't run very deep, according to a new study out of the United Kingdom.

Sheffield Hallam University researcher Will Reader found that social networking sites allow a user to have a high number of friends, but they don't facilitate close friendships, the British Association for the Advancement of Science reported.

Reader spoke about his research on the issue at the group's annual Festival of Science in York this week.

Reader and his colleagues are in the midst of a four-year study on how modern communications affect relationships. They have already looked at whether online networks decrease the investments required for close friendships by reducing perceptions of risk. They did an online survey and found that in-person encounters remain the most important factor in forming close friendships.

Respondents indicated that about 90% of online friends they rates as "close" were those they had met in person, and the remaining 10% were friends of friends -- but not just any friends, friends of close friends, according to the association's report. That's because friends of friends are likely to share similar attributes and represent low risks, according to the report.

Close friendships can rarely be formed without judging people's honesty on nonverbal cues, Reader said.

The findings are consistent with a recent study showing that more than half of U.S. teens use social networking sites to stay in touch and make plans with people they already know.

Sheffield researchers will also look at whether the quality of communication drops as speed and frequency of communications increase.

Reader could not be reached immediately but has explained in that past that: "Computer technology changes the way we work and live, yet we have little understanding about how it influences social processes, positively or negatively. We will analyze how the ways we make contact using technology help maintain those relationships, for example, if it's the frequency or quality of communication that's more important."

In a statement issued through the university, he anticipated that the study could stir up new theories about how computer technology can influence social relationships and impact policy and future Internet policies.