An interview study -

How/Why people use social media to maintain long-distance relationships (2012-2013)

Context

By 2012, more than 14 million couples worldwide claimed they were in a long-distance romantic relationship (LDRR). LDRR couples are more likely to feel depressed, stressful and lonely than geographically close romantic relationship (GCRR) couples.

Although a couple’s private interaction (e.g., phone, video camera chatting) has a direct bearing on the outcome of a relationship, the broader social environment (e.g., public expression) is also important and can affect the nature of the couple’s interaction.

I was interested in a new type of public online support group built for LDRR couples that had become the fastest growing and largest online community on the largest social media in China in 2012-2013, Renren.com (over 200 million users in 2012). I wanted to explore why people join it, how they use it, and what they get from it as my boyfriend (now husband) and I were in a LDRR.

I was a 1st year PhD student and chose this topic for an independent research study in a course (LBSC 888: Doctoral Seminar).  With the support of my advisor Dr. Jennifer Preece and the instructor of the course Dr. Kari Kraus, I developed it in a full UX study.

Methods and Analysis

  • Interviewed with the social media users who were members of the public online LDRR support group

    • 12 female, 9 male

    • 18-28 year old (average age: 21)

    • Duration of LDRR ranges from 2 to 36 months (median: 23 months)

    • Occupations: college students, sales, engineer, and technician

 

  • Used grounded theory to analyze interview transcriptions (translated from Chinese to English)

Findings

  • Users lurk most of the time unless their strong empathy is aroused

  • Users’ four major motivations

Belonging

e.g. “I felt a strong sense of belonging because we cherish the same ideals and follow the same path.” 

Empathy

e.g., “Many status updates…expressed exactly what I was feeling, making me feel they are so close to my heart.”

Social support

e.g., “I want to see the positive aspects of LDRR from this public page, to make me feel that the LDRR is as sweet as a GCRR, and I am happy in the LDRR.”

Learning

e.g., “I use the public page because I want to learn how to build a better LDRR by understanding the LDRR-related information from the many perspectives provided on the public page.”

  • Initial and continued motivations have different patterns

  • Perceived social support is the main benefit of participating in the LDRR public page

Impact

  • The findings of this study had been shared with the public online support group’s managers. They agreed to share more positive LDRR stories and communicate more frequently with the group members as they realized that social support is not only the most important continued motivation but also the main benefit of being a member of this online support group.

  • This study suggests that designers have a critical role to play in creating systems, platforms, and devices that serve not only private communication between the two members of a couple, but also public communication among the individuals participating in these larger LDRR communities. 

The full results of this study are published in an international HCI conference:

He, Y., Kraus, K., & Preece, J. (2013). You are not alone online: a case study of a long distance romantic relationship online community. In Proceedings of the HCI International 2013 (HCII’ 13). https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-642-39371-6_3 [Best Paper Award, one of the 12 best papers among 1663 submitted papers]