Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and online communities.
He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
In my last post, I outlined some basic differences between social networks and communities from a social anthropological perspective. If you didn’t see that post I recommend you take a quick read of my previous article: Community vs. Social Network, as I’ll expand on that thinking here.
Today, I will continue our mini-series on the dynamics and interplay between communities and social networks. You will recall from my previous blog post that individuals in a social network are held together by pre-existing interpersonal relationships. Today, we will investigate how those pre-existing relationships were established on the first place.
One of the areas I touched on previously was that social networks connect every single person on this planet. Moreover, research has confirmed the validity of a popular urban myth: six degrees of separation urban myth. Recent data and calculation suggests that most people are actually within 6 to 7 degrees of each other, so this myth still holds up in the modern web 2.0 era. Therefore you can, theoretically, reach and connect to any one of 6.8 billion people on this planet in relatively few steps.
In reality, people don’t connect to the whole world. In fact, people don’t even connect with everyone who is living in the same city, going to the same school, or working in the same company as them. What prevents people from connecting? To understand this, let’s break down the lifecycle of any relationship into three stages:
Note: The kinds of connections that I will focus on are bidirectional, mutual and reciprocating ties, because these are the ties that can be developed into strong relationships. For these to happen, both entities must agree to connect for the tie to form. The entities that are connected by these ties are usually people, but they may be organizations, companies, or even countries.
The Desire to Connect is a Basic Requirement
In all three stages, both entities must have the desire to further the relationship. If any party becomes uninterested or finds the relationship not worthwhile, the process will halt and the relationship will not move to the next stage. That is, the tie may never be created, or the tie may remain remains weak (if it has already been created), or the tie strength may be weakened and revert back to a weak tie (if it has already been developed).
So how do people choose which tie to form, which one to develop and, which to maintain? This is a non-trivial problem, and is currently a subject of intense research. Many social network formation models have been proposed and studied recently. All of them are based on Game Theory, a very challenging branch of mathematics that models rational human behavior and strategic choices. Note: The great mathematician, John F. Nash (who was the subject of the Hollywood movie: A Beautiful Mind) received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research on Game Theory. Clearly, a full treatise on this topic is way beyond the scope of this blog.
For simplicity, you can think of people’s choice as a result of a cost-benefit analysis of the action they are about to take. What does that mean? For example, in creating a weak tie, both entities will analyze the cost (or risk) and benefit of creating such a tie, as long as both feel that the benefit out weights the risk, they will proceed and create the tie. This is a very interesting topic, so I will revisit this topic with greater details in a later post. For now, just remember that all three stages of relationships development involve a choice that depends on the two persons’ desire to connect. If people don’t want to connect, no ties can be created.
Creating the Weak Ties
Besides the personal desire to connect, there are environmental factors that can affect tie formation by limiting people’s ability to reach each other. Clearly, if the environment precludes two persons from ever encountering each other, then there is no way a tie can form between them. There are basically only two mechanisms that people can meet and connect.
Mechanism 1: Community
For centuries, community has always been the place where people congregate and it is the place where social ties initially form. Years of social anthropological observation tell us that the majority of relationships in our social network were first established in some sort of communities. Certainly, most of my friends are people that I grew up with (in my neighborhood community), went to school with (in my campus community), my colleagues (in the same professional community), and fellow researchers (in the same research community). These are people who share some common communities with me at some point in time, and these communities can be geographical, cultural, interest-based, and/or institutional.
Therefore, sharing a set of communities (both online and offline) in common becomes the primary factor that will determine whether people can encounter. If the two people do not share any common community, then it would be impossible for them to form ties via this mechanism. The more communities these two people have in common, the greater the chance for them to encounter each other. This will increase the probability of tie formation between them.
Mechanism 2: Social Network
The second mechanism that people can meet is through our friends, colleagues, relatives (i.e. our personal social network). Again, a social anthropologist would say that this is again nothing new. Indeed, humans have been doing this since they were caveman. What is new though, is that Social network services (SNS) made it very easy for people to explore and discover the relationships that are normally unknown to them. Let me illustrate this with an example.
Let’s say I have a friend, Dave. I know Dave pretty well, but I may not know all of Dave’s friends. Jen is a friend of Dave, but I don’t know Jen. If I don’t see Dave and Jen hanging out together in any social context, I may never know that Dave and Jen actually know each other. But, with SNS, I can explore Dave’s network and discover that he’s connected to Jen. Subsequently, I may ask Dave to introduce us and become connected to Jen. This scenario is one that many people traditionally called social networking – the technological enablement of which has spawned our whole industry.
Although SNS greatly facilitates the process of social networking, there are still limitations. Even though it is possible to reach anyone on this planet through social network in about 6 or 7 degrees, in practice it is pretty difficult to actually reach people who are more than 3 degrees apart from you. So the primary factor that will determine whether people can connect through social network is the network distance (the degrees of separation) between the two persons.
So what have we learned so far about how people become connected?
1. Weak ties can pretty much form anywhere. They are created:
a. In communities (which are everywhere) and
b. Through social networks (which cover the entire planet)
2. The formation of weak ties between two people depends on
a. Their desire to connect (this is a very interesting topic that I will cover in greater depth in a future post)
b. The amount of communities they shared in common
c. The network distance (degrees of separation) between them
Next post, I will look at the second stage and try to understand how weak ties are developed into strong relationships. In the mean time, this is a pretty meaty topic, so I welcome any comments, questions or thoughts you might have.
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