By Dena T. Smithiphone

Facebook announced that over the next few weeks, members will begin to be able to use voice capabilities that will be integrated into a variety of applications offered by the social networking site (see the article). If this is successful, it will open the door to new possibilities for increased connection between users. No longer would Skype or sites like Myspace be enough all on their own. Whether it’s texting, emailing, facebooking, IMing, or Tweeting, people are already in constant contact with one another. A relatively new phenomenon, however, is voice chatting, even while gaming or surfing the web. For some time now, people have been able to communicate in text while playing online games – even while playing simple card games. Voice communication via a headset that plugs into a gaming system or a computer has not been around for that long and yet has become a central part of most gamers’ and online users’ lives. People can now talk to each other via their gaming systems – when they’re online via Xbox 360, for instance, any other player who’s also online can be reached just as over a phone line.  It seems that there is little activity these days that doesn’t involve listening to someone else’s voice. One important question we might ask is: does this mean that the already minimal amount of alone time that we have, given the myriad technological options already available to us, will be decreased? Or does it just mean that the time we would normally spend on sites like Facebook will be enhanced with voice chatting? In other words, will our vast online networks take up even more of our time or will the method by which we communicate just be altered?


There is a great deal written by social theorists about how our social networks are constructed (see the Blackwell companion) and of the breakdown of face-to-face interaction in modern society.  We talk on the phone and online, often at the expense of meeting up for a cup of coffee.  Some theorists laud face time for its intimacy and deeper connection between individuals. Still others claim that expanding our online networks is good, even if detracts from the amount of time we can meet up in non-virtual time. If our networks are getting so large that even our video games are now played with others, we can chat while we explore virtual realms, we can talk to the hundreds or thousands of friends we have on Facebook with much greater ease than phone-calling, do we still reap the benefits of what Granovetter called “the strentgth of weak ties?” As our networks expand and we communicate with acquaintances as well as those to whom we have close ties much more frequently, what effect will this have on how well we know people? Granovetter suggested (as do many network theorists) that weak ties are good for getting jobs, finding resources, etc., but what if our networks get too big? What if we can talk to so many people in a given day that these connections become meaningless? Perhaps the voice feature will reign us back in and make it so that we selectively chat (via voice) with people we really care about and only use the  text chat feature for everyone else. Finally, it is worth asking what effect this additional tool for online communication will have on the time we spend on other activities. As it is, social networking sites like Facebook take up a great deal of time in order for users to stay connected with even a fraction of their friends. If we can have real conversations as well, how much more time will we dedicate to these types of sites?


Voice Chat Coming to Facebook (at CNN.com)

Square-eyeSocial Networks in The Blackwell Comanion to Sociology