American social scientists have been spying on mobile phone users to find out exactly what they are doing. It’s all part of an ongoing international research project in the USA, Finland and Kenya which has shown that we tend to prefer to network with people close to us. In spite of the global connections the mobile phone and the Internet give us, we are happiest when in touch with people nearby.

We are happiest when we network with local people

We are happiest when we network with local people

People who spend time at work calling their friends were shown to be less happy than those people who did not call their friends while working. Yet, just like almost every other study of social behaviour people reported different behaviour to what they were actually doing.

The researchers fitted devices to mobile phones which provided data on every activity the phone was used for. This information was then compared with the self-reporting of activities by the phone’s users. The participants in the study were not wholly truthful in what they said they were doing – even though they knew they were being spied upon…!

The results are therefore important. Our perception of our behaviour is not what we are actually doing. Online this translates into us thinking we are connecting ourselves with people all around the world, only to find we are really spending most of our time with people who are quite local to us. The global impact of social networking is not quite as international as we think it is.

Indeed in a research study of online gamers, most people were playing with other individuals who were just a few miles away. And previous studies have shown that in spite of claiming we are international, few people venture beyond a few miles from home.

This new study of mobile phone users merely confirms these earlier research findings – we prefer our connections to be local. There could be all sorts of reasons behind this. One might be the possibility of actual face-to-face meetings. In spite of increased social connectivity online, we do love meeting people in the “real world”. Perhaps our online choice of networking partners is biased towards individuals we have a greater chance of meeting in real life.

Equally, the new study points to the fact that we shouldn’t always believe what people tell us about their behaviour. Your website users may say they use your pages in one way, but in reality they may be doing something completely different. Asking people about their online behaviour only gives you part of the answer you need.

But as an employer, this new research does point to a question that is useful to ask. “Do you use social networks or contact your friends during office hours?”. If people are prepared to admit to this, the new research points to the possibility that such individuals are less than happy in their job. If your staff are making personal phone calls at work, or they are using Facebook or Twitter, it’s not their lack of attention to their work that needs attacking. It’s almost certainly their actual job and the functions they are required to perform. It’s a signal that they are unhappy in their work.

Happy workers do their job then go out and meet their friends who are all local. And avid online social networkers may be fooling themselves into believing they are making loads of international connections, when in reality they are unhappily searching for local people to be with.

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