jump to navigation

Three ways that social networks are different from other forms of online communication February 4, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in communication, email, performance, social games, social media, social networks.

Social Networks are widely accepted to be the latest evolution of online communications, tracing a line back through instant messaging, webmail, chat rooms and bulletin boards. Now that we’ve had a little more time and perspective on how they are used, we’re starting to see a few differences between how social networks are used for online communication and previous forms of online communication. I can think of three primary differences:

Stages for Performance.

As danah boyd has noted before, the public nature of many social network communications leads to performance aspects to communication. Users are simultaneously communicating with not just the recipient, but anyone else who happens to stumble across the recipient’s profile. An example I gave in a previous post is a helpful illustration:

Suppose it’s your birthday, and I know it. If I send you an email wishing you “Happy Birthday” then you’re happy that I remembered. This communication is part of the social lubricant on which relationships are built.

But supposed that I post “Happy Birthday” to your Facebook Wall instead. Then not only do you know that I remembered, but ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS know that I remembered as well. They may find out from the feed, or by visiting your page, but they will know that I’m a good enough friend of yours that I know when is your birthday. That is the performance element of the communication.

Lighter Weight Communications

Historically, an important part of communicating with someone is having something to say. Emails are not sent blank, calls are not spent silently. But as the quantity of one’s relationships increases over Dunbar’s number, it becomes impossible to maintain the full overhead of communication with each person. Put simply, for some of your weaker ties, you just don’t have the time to think of something original to say to each one of them. But you still want to maintain some “heartbeat” to the relationship with an occasional ping.

People have found lots of solutions to this problem. One is the Holiday card, often with an annual update letter enclosed. Another is the non verbal communication often seen between coworkers in an office or competitors at a conference. Smiles, nods, back slaps, high fives as you pass each other in the corridor are enough to keep a relationship acknowledged without having to stop and talk each time. A third is the chain email. Whether forwarding inspirational passages, funny videos or jokes, chain emails let people keep in touch with their friends without having to spend a lot of time thinking about what to say.

These lightweight communications are native to social networks. Whether they be exchanging pokes on Facebook or pasting a glittering “thanks for the add” .jpg into a Myspace comment, “content free” communications abound. The meta message is clear though “I’m thinking of you”, and that is often enough of a ping to keep the connection open. Many of the Facebook and Bebo apps fulfill exactly this lightweight communication function, including Hug Me, Zombies and Scrabulous. Many of the social games on facebook wrap this lightweight communication around a casual game.

Context for communications

Facebook’s innovation in the feed is now being widely imitated by the other social networks, and with good reason. As I mentioned earlier, two of the challenges of having a large number of relationships are (i) keeping on top of them all and (ii) being able to communicate often enough to keep the relationships alive. The Feed dramatically simplifies this process, especially when combined with Facebook’s birthday notification and the full status updates list. All three features provide triggers for communications with friends, whether commenting on their pictures, posting witty comments to their wall about what they are doing or wishing them a happy birthday. Facebook and other social networks are helping prompt more communications between their users by helping to surface topics for communication.

Yahoo, Google, AOL and Microsoft are all rumored to be revamping their communications products; it will be interesting to see if how they start to incorporate some of these social network native features into their email and messaging products.


1. Ginger Makela - February 4, 2008

These are all great observations. Social networks also help cut out chit-chat and smalltalk and help you come up with good conversations in the real world, too. When I see a co-worker on Monday, instead of asking her how her weekend was, I can say, I saw on friendfeed that you tiled your kitchen countertop this weekend. I want to do the same thing — what tips can you give me?

2. joe g - February 4, 2008

Jeremy –

Nice post – on target as usual. One thing i would expand on though is the nature of information discovery as part of the communication value of a social network. You touch on this in pointing out that performance is one of the novel elements of certain social network communications – but i don’t think that captures the full power of what users are doing.

As a quick example, i just recently reconnected with an old friend from high school on facebook. Before we even exchanged pleasantries, i had largely caught up on her life (family, social relationships, jobs, etc) via information contained on her profile and then i got distracted and spent 20 minutes listening to music from a band she favorited on iLike. I don’t think she was “performing” – certainly not for me – in adding that information, but it was definitely a form of communication and one that i benefited from greatly.

My point is this – social networks ARE an evolved form of direct person-to-person online communication with parallels to the other forms described above. But they are also something entirely new, something that actually serves more of a “browse and discover” use case like a search engine or portal – but where interesting content is not organized by keyword or directory but rather by the perhaps even more interesting categorization “Stuff that Alex has been up to.”

Which, i believe, is why the same large internet companies mentioned above are also working actively on integrating social network features into their search pages and browse products as well.

3. Lance - February 4, 2008

May I add this – at the heart of the social network experience is the ability to notify a user of ‘recent activity’ within the network. This is done by and large via a simple notification system to your more traditional communication tool – your email (and now your directly to blackberry for facebook users).

This notification method allows for filtering away from irrelevant messages we often call SPAM. Most users would much rather respond to an email re: ‘you have a new comment’ as that notification is effectively authorized by the social network/friend/user and legitimate for reasons Jeremy and Joe G point out. MySpace got out of control with spam hijacking of the friend invite system, thus many disregard this system as the respect level for that communication has waned. Facebook does a great job of controlling this.

In summary – SPAM still has an influence on the social networking wheel. Its indirect but yet very present. The more spamming continues, the better off users are to have a social environment that calls us back to it when there is something relevant we want to explore.

Just my 2 cents.

Great write up Jeremy.

4. VentureBeat » Analysis: Problems and possibilities in MySpace’s new developer platform - February 6, 2008

[…] Simple actions such as “tickling” a friend on Facebook have proven popular because friends have new ways of communicating without having to send complete messages, and MySpace hasn’t offered this sort of passive communication before. Applications are the modern form of sending holiday greeting cards, or nodding to an acquaintance that you pass in the hallway, as Jeremy Liew eloquently notes here. […]

5. Martha Mihaly - February 6, 2008

Your observations are excellent ad astute. Thank you.

I would add to Jeremy’s comment though, that the social networking sites have to walk a very fine line between notifying their members of activity in the sphere of interest, and being too noisy. Do we need 15 notifications a day, or is one enough? Will one bulk notice of activity trigger the same sense of urgency in the member to check s/he isn’t ‘missing’ something?

6. Faux Facebook fatigue « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - March 3, 2008

[…] is true. But their viral growth speaks to them meeting a core need for users of social networks, lightweight communications across increasingly expanded friendship networks: These lightweight communications are native to […]

7. Facebook App Economy: Trends & Opportunities « developeranalytics [dA] | blog - March 9, 2008

[…] Facebook is a “communication platform.” The top 3 app categories are essentially all variations of lightweight messaging. At its a core, a poke, a gift, or a wall post are all direct one-to-one interaction between two people. Also note that these are all extensions of the original features of Facebook. (Related link: “3 ways that social networks are different from other forms of online communication“) […]

8. Why do kids and tweens buy virtual goods vs why do teens buy virtual goods? « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - July 28, 2008

[…] social environment to justify and validate their purchases. Ownership is a performance, one of the three ways that social networks are different from other forms of online communication. This social environment takes longer to develop, and hence demand for virtual goods can be delayed […]

9. Leena Kapoor - March 20, 2009

Great blog! Communication is central for effective functioning. It will either make or break a relationship.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: