The World is Not Flat and Neither Are Social Networks

Now that I and the rest of the Internet has grown accustomed to Google Plus and Facebook’s most recent friend categorization features, I thought it was time to revisit and revise a previously unpublished piece of mine. Take a moment and think about your friends, family, colleagues, friends of friends, acquaintances, and members of the same social club. These six groups could comprise a large part, but certainly not all, of the people that you know. You may also have extended family, classmates, common members of sports teams, religious associations, and the familiar strangers you recognize, but don’t know their names. To further complicate matters, the people in these groups often change over time as we move through life. How we conduct ourselves depends on the situation. It is highly unlikely that you act the same way around your grandmother as you do at a party with your friends and people do not expect you to act the same way. Your friends, work colleagues, and extended family do not all know each other and I suspect that in many cases you would like to keep it that way. For this reason, it seems odd to expect that our interactions in online social networks would be any different.

I had the final word in Erica Naone’s Technology Review article Can Google Get Social Networking Right?. Naone’s piece argues that Google needed to dramatically improve its social offerings to compete against Facebook. She asked me to comment on Google’s social services such as Buzz and Profiles and how they might interact with user’s search history. It is interesting to see how much the discussion has changed since the article appeared. Disclosure: I worked as an engineering intern on Google Accounts during 2005-2006, but this was well before any of Google’s social options existed. I responded with a discussion of broad problems I saw with social network services. The following quote in the Naone’s article mostly reflects my statements, although the quote makes it appear that I am singling out Facebook for criticism, which misses the point that I think this is a fundamental problem across many social networks.

“Facebook, meanwhile, has its own problems, and some of these could turn out to be opportunities for Google. Ben Gross, an expert in online identity, notes that Facebook and other social networks don’t accurately differentiate between people’s social connections, making their social graph information less valuable to users and advertisers. For example, social networks tend to put all of a user’s connections into a single group of “friends,” and expect users to manage complex privacy settings to sort out family, work connections, and bar buddies. “Social network services should not assume that networks are flat, or that people are willing to put in the effort to articulate these networks or that they even want to,” he says.”

My full response from which the quote was taken follows below. I fixed a few typos, but it is otherwise unedited.

“I see several consistent problems with many of the social network services. First, they often unify disparate social networks in ways that do not match people’s actual experience and may not even make sense to them. In order to have a real representation of people’s social networks, they would have to fully articulate these networks to the service, which is a pretty unnatural thing to do. For many people the edges of the network shift regularly. Most social network services do not make it easy to maintain multiple independent networks on the service. It is common for people to maintain independent social networks, where individuals may not want the networks unified and people may not even care or wish to know about the other networks. For example, one’s extended family vs. one’s work colleagues vs. one’s friends they have brunch with on the weekend. The idea that there is a single flat network is sort of ridiculous.

I often hear people say that people who want to maintain independent identities or networks are somehow up to no good. I have interviewed quite a few people about this topic for my dissertation. It’s clear that people’s lives are complicated and their identifiers and networks reflect this. If you think about it, it is not at all strange for someone to want to separate their work life, from their family life, from their friend, or all manner of combinations. The boundaries of these relationships shift and behaviors vary widely. Social network services should not assume that networks are flat, that people are willing to put in the effort to articulate these networks, or that they even want to. Also for many people, they may have portions of their network that they are connected to online and therefore the online representation of their network may be very skewed. Even if people are connected to multiple networks online, they may use different social network services for different social networks. For example, it is not unusual for people to primarily have email conversations with some connections, use AIM for others, Google Talk for others, SMS for another group, and Facebook for yet another. Each service would be missing the chunk of connections for the other service.”

You need context to create a meaningful representation of a person’s social network. To make matters worse, that context shifts constantly as do peoples social relations, particularly those with whom we have weak connections. This is why people often see online social network representations as a cartoonish view of their own complex and ever changing social worlds. This is not a new revelation about social relations. William James published the following in 1890.

Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind. To wound any one of these his images is to wound him. But as the individuals who carry the images fall naturally into classes, we may practically say that he has as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups. Many a youth who is demure enough before his parents and teachers, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his ‘tough’ young friends. We do not show ourselves to our children as to our club-companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends. From this there results what practically is a division of the man into several selves; and this may be a discordant splitting, as where one is afraid to let one set of his acquaintances know him as he is elsewhere; or it may be a perfectly harmonious division of labor, as where one tender to his children is stern to the soldiers or prisoners under his command.

It is important to recognize that forcing people interact with their social relations as a flat network has many undesirable consequences. Figuring out how to restore a more natural balance to social relations is a grand challenge for social networks. People we think of as friends, enemies, and acquaintances change over time as friendships intensify and cool and we move through life phases. Also, complete visibility in networks is not always desirable or healthy. When we remove people’s choice to disclose their relationships and group memberships we strip them of something that is fundamentally human. We provide people with only one option for presenting themselves at a time denies them an important means of self-expression that is also fundamentally human.

I find it heartening to see how much has improved over the last year as both Google Plus and Facebook have dramatically improved the situation in allowing us more options to interact naturally with different social spheres. Framing choices about self presentation as choices about privacy misses the point that the issue is usually about context. When social networks lack context, it forces people to articulate everyone that should be included or excluded from a particular interaction. In these cases, the cognitive overhead of potentially making this judgement for each interaction is staggeringly high. Unless you are a public figure, you likely never need to decide if what you say is appropriate or even remotely interesting to someone you went to grade school with, someone you went to college with, a work colleague, your aunt, your next door neighbor, and a dear friend. We should not force people to work this hard unnecessarily.

References

danah michele boyd. Friendster and publicly articulated social networking. In CHI ‘04 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, pages 1279–1282, New York, NY, USA, 2004. ACM. Articulated Social Networks: An Ethnographic Study of Friendster

Erving Goffman. Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, New York, 1959.

Francesca Grippa, Antonio Zilli, Robert Laubacher, and Peter A. Gloor. E-mail may not reflect the social network. In Proceedings of the North American Association for Computational Social and Organizational Science Conference, 2006.

Ido Guy, Michal Jacovi, Noga Meshulam, Inbal Ronen, and Elad Shahar. Public vs. private: Comparing public social network information with email. In CSCW ‘08: Proceedings of the ACM 2008 conference on Computer supported cooperative work, pages 393–402, New York, NY, USA, 2008. ACM

Kai Fischbach, Peter A. Gloor, and Detlef Schoder. Analysis of informal communication networks – a case study. Business & Information Systems Engineering, 1:140–149, 2009.

William James. The Principles of Psychology, volume 1. Henry Holt & Co., 1890

Hat tip to Gaurav Mishra whose similar titled article The World is Not Flat and Neither is the Social Web (site is currently offline), from 2008 I found after I finished writing this post.

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