On the Quantity and Quality of Friendships (and Keeping Up with the Joneses) in the Online Era

On the Quantity and Quality of Friendships (and Keeping Up with the Joneses) in the Online Era


Nina T. W. Schaap, KiM Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis, Sascha Hoogendoorn-Lanser, KiM Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis, Jaco Berveling, KiM Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis


Based on the Netherlands Mobility Panel MPN, we delve into the world of online social networks. Mobility for maintaining social contacts shows substitution, generation and modification effects due to the internet.


Social relations are an important part of our lives, and as such are a relevant driver behind some of our mobility. This not only pertains to the fact that we frequently undertake trips for social purposes: social relations also give a sense of belonging. However, the ways in which we establish and maintain social relations, and the activities we engage in with our friends and acquaintances, are continuously changing due to the rapid rise of the internet’s many social applications. Supported by literature and the data derived from the first wave of the Netherlands Mobility Panel (in Dutch 'MobiliteitsPanel Nederland' - MPN), we delve into the world of online social networks.

The MPN is a state-of-the-art household panel which main objectives are to determine short-run and long-run dynamics in travel behavior of individuals and households, and to determine how changes in personal and household characteristics and other travel-related factors (e.g. economic crisis, reduced taxes on more sustainable cars, changes in land-use or the increased availability and use of ICT) correlate with changes in travel behavior.

The internet is often said to have four possible impacts on mobility: through substitution (online activities, such as Skyping, substituting offline activities, leading to less trips), generation (using the internet leads to more tips, for instance through knowledge about things to do or growing networks), modification (trip characteristics, such as destinations or departure time, change) and neutrality (no measurable impact). The analyses of our data, interlaced with relevant literature, reveal that internet does indeed have a demonstrable impact on social relations and the trips we undertake to maintain these relations. A key conclusion in our study is that all three measurable effects take place when looking at mobility for maintaining social contacts. As an example, the need to travel to find new contacts is decreasing for certain groups, but their new online contacts generally live further away and as a consequence, the trips involved in meeting these contacts offline are generally longer or different in nature (e.g., by airplane). The paper will go into a number of these effects and link them to the effects of substitution, generation and modification.

Another key finding is that the internet also has an impact on the quantity of online versus offline social networks. By using the internet, people often expand their social networks, especially those people who use internet dating sites. For most people, this expansion is limited, although some people grow their network to extreme sizes and use this expanding online social network as a way to “keep up with the Joneses” and derive status from the number of social contacts. The impact of the changing quantity of social networks on mobility (and the differences compared to the current wave) will be the focus of the next wave of the longitudinal MPN data collection.

In any case, there is no need to revise the Dutch proverb: ‘een goede buur is beter dan een verre vriend’ (a good neighbour is better than a distant friend), and that shall remain the case for a while yet.


Association for European Transport