Online personal networks: Size, composition and media use among distance learners

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Personal relationships are noted for intimacy, frequent interaction, the maintenance of multiple relations, face-to-face contact and a desire for proximity. What happens to such relationships when face-to-face contact is unavailable or severely limited? How do pairs maintain personal relationships at a distance and via computer-mediated communication, and what do their personal networks look like under these conditions? Social network data from four computer-supported distance learning classes are used to build a picture of the size and composition of students' personal online networks. Individuals reported on their communications regarding instrumental and social relations with others in their class, and on which media they used to maintain these relations. In keeping with social network studies, those who communicate more frequently maintain more relations and more socially supportive relations, and report more positively about their desire for future work and social interaction. Individuals benefit from closer ties by feeling a stronger belonging to the class and perceiving greater social interaction among class mates. Unique to the online multi-media environment, strongly tied pairs use more media to communicate and appropriate both the technology and occasions for interaction to maintain their ties. Interview data from members of the same program reveal that pairs with closer ties used computer media to create virtual proximity, whispering to each other via Internet Relay Chat during synchronous classes, and seeking out others via email late at night.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)195-226
Number of pages32
JournalNew Media and Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Asynchronous learning networks (ALN)
  • Computer-mediated communication (CMC)
  • Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL)
  • Egocentric networks
  • Interpersonal ties
  • Online learning
  • Personal networks
  • Social networks

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science


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