Ivan Smirnov, a researcher from the Institute of Education, analysed the data of 36,951 students from 590 schools of Saint Petersburg and found that there is a strong correlation between the educational outcomes of a school and its digital neighbours. Students are more likely to be connected if the educational outcomes of their schools are similar. The results were published in PLOS One.
The Internet provides students with a unique opportunity to connect and maintain social ties with peers from other schools, regardless of how far away they live from each other. However, little is known about the actual structure of such relationships. While friendship networks of students from a single school are well-studied, interschool friendship remains an underexplored topic.
In the paper, ‘Schools are Segregated by Educational Outcomes in the Digital Space’, Ivan Smirnov examines the data of 36,951 students from 590 schools in Saint Petersburg, one of the largest cities of Europe, and their friendship links on VK. VK is the most popular Russian social networking site, and it is ubiquitous among young Russians: more than 90% of them use it regularly.
Ivan Smirnov found that online friendship is closely related to physical distance, i.e. the probability of a friendship tie between students from neighboring schools is high, and it decreases with the distance between schools.
He also found that the position of a school in a friendship network is a good predictor of its educational outcomes. A school’s centrality explains as much about variations in its academic performance as the socio-economic status of its students does.
Finally, his study showed that students are more likely to be connected if the educational outcomes of their schools are similar. This is an intriguing finding, because it cannot be explained by residential distance. While high- and low-performing schools are evenly distributed across the city, this is not the case in the space of social media, where the distance or proximity of schools’ digital communities to each other are determined not by geographical location but by educational outcomes. There is no significant correlation between the educational outcomes of a school and its geographical neighbours; however, there is a strong correlation between the educational outcomes of a school and its digital neighbours.
These results provide insight on interschool friendship and the relationship between online ties and physical space. They may also have important implications for understanding inequality in the digital age.