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Social Media: Why social network “friends” are not necessarily friends. December 16, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in attention, facebook, myspace, social media, social networks, structure.

Two interesting posts recently address the issue of the number and strength of online relationships within social networks. Andrew Chen notes that friendships are complex:

…friendship networks are actually very complex, and are poorly approximated by the “friends” versus “not friends” paradigm, or even the “friends”, “top friends”, and then “not friends” paradigm…

… in fact, once you have this social map drawn out, one of the most interesting questions you can ask people is how they figure out in what situations they should:

* call someone
* text someone
* e-mail someone
* poke them
* write on their wall
* write them a message
* meet them in person
* etc

…there’s a steady progression of “commitment” that it takes to go from writing on a wall (the least burdensome thing) versus meeting them in person (the most burdensome thing). In fact, one of the really useful things that social networks provide that e-mail doesn’t is a range of expressiveness in your communication such that you can use it for more things than sending notes or data across the wire.

danah boyd reaches related conclusions as she thinks about the value of inefficiency in communication.

Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I’ve found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they’d give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.

When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why? Because “it takes effort” to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too easy and it’s not surprising that teens have employed this medium to beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page.

Andrew found that sending or accepting a “friend” request was one of the least effort ways of communicating online (especially now that sending friend requests has largely been automated via email import tools). This leads to “friend” lists quickly growing to a size well over 150, Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship. So interestingly enough, marking someone as a “friend” in a social network is not a terribly good test of whether or not they are actually a friend.

Mining implicit data on behavior to create this structure is actually a better indicator of the real strength of relationships. Xobni does this via email; do any readers know of any third party systems that do this for social networks?


1. Alex Iskold - December 16, 2007

I totally agree that implicit is the way to go for the reasons you described. Last.fm does it very well.

2. Pius - December 16, 2007

Interesting essay.

By the way, “Dana Boyd” should be spelled “danah boyd.” I’m only pointing this out because I recall reading an essay a couple years ago that she wrote entirely about her name’s etymology and significance.


3. Thomas Brox Røst - December 16, 2007

We do some social network mining at eventseer.net (http://eventseer.net), which is a computer science event/person/topic tracker.

For two people to have a relationship we need explicit documentation. Specifically, they have to be mentioned in the same context, e.g. a conference call or as authors of a publication. Based on this we are able to map out a profile for the person in question. For now, this profile consists of the people this person is most likely to share common interests with and the research topics that he or she is likely to be pursuing.

As an example, this is the profile for Bruce Schneier, the security expert: http://eventseer.net/person/25494/

It’s a little rough at the moment, but in a couple of weeks registered users will be able to modify their profiles and submit additional information. Where we differ from other social networks is that we require explicit evidence of a relationship for it to be valid. In theory, this should make the network a _lot_ more useful, e.g. for finding other computer science researchers who shares your interests, keeping track of new events and publications based on your automatically inferred topics, and so on.

4. sharpshoot - December 16, 2007

See socialistics by Techenlightnement in the UK. They were recently coveted by Tim O’Reilly at the Web 2.0 conference.

5. sharpshoot - December 16, 2007

Other good ways of mining this data would also to be to look at information flows between friends in Plaxo pulse and Friendfeed. Ideally what would be required is being able to mine calling data from mobile phone bills which have online datastores. Relating that to social networking data will be one way of mining social network relationships.

Although i would suspect this is Xobni’s long term vision. To implicitly determine social relationships via channels of communication.

6. jeremyliew - December 16, 2007

Pius – thanks for your note – I made the change

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