MAS 960  ·  Signals, Truth & Design Seminar  ·  Fall 2007

10.02 Trust and friendship within social networks

The people you know are your social network. This personal network is embedded in a larger network, for you can follow the chain of connections from your friends, to their friends, to the friends of these friends of friends. We live in the age of global connectedness: with the exception of a few isolated tribes in the rainforests of New Guinea, the Amazon, and the Andaman Islands, everyone is connected to everyone else in a giant social network.

The structure of social networks has been the focus of much recent (and not so recent) research. How many hops does it take to get from one arbitrary person to another? (Milgram,Watts)? How does information and social support move through these networks and how do people understand and make use of them in everyday life (Wellman, Granovetter, Feld)? How do people communicate information about their network? And how do / should new technologies extend these connections?



Wellman, Barry and Milena Gulia The network basis of social support
Granovetter, Mark The Strength of Weak Ties
Feld, Scott The Focused Organization of Social Ties
danah boyd   Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8
Donath, Judith    DRAFT Signals in Social Supernets
OPTIONAL: Donath, Judith and danah boyd    Public displays of connection


  A future of many weak ties?

In the last few years, numerous social networking sites have been built (friendster, linkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, etc. etc), some of which have become extremely popular. The premise of many of these sites is that the more connections you have and can show, the better.

Yet real world social networks have real costs. Maintaining a somewhat deeper connection with another person requires spending the time with them, and being responsible for them in some fashion, whether just to be an available ear or to truly take care of them in a time of need. A big question about social netowrking technology is whether it functions mainly to substitute numerous shallow and weak ties for fewer but deeper ones. If you are not familiar with any such sites please spend some time looking at a few of them (e.g. LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.)

The Wellman and Giulia paper talks about the social support people get from networks. Granovetter talks about the value of heterogeneous networks. Feld discusses how people balance creating larger circles of friends with the limits of their time and attention. danah boyd's paper looks at how people use social network sites to express nuances of friendship. And my paper asks whether social networking sites or their future incarnations have the potential to deeply transform society. Please read these papers and answer about the following questions:

  • How do people display social networks in everyday life (that is, not online)? Give 2 concrete, specific examples. Why do they do this? Looking at this display as a signal, what is the quality it is inferring?  What are the costs of making this signal? The benefits? Is there a cost to the receiver if it is not honest?
  • Describe or sketch part of a social network known to you (e.g. your friends, family, acquaintances in classes, etc. - feel free to use pseudonyms or describe a network from your past, such as high school, for privacy). Networking sites use unnuanced and symmetrical links - in your description, what more nuanced description of these links would you include? For instance, there are different types of relationships - parent-child, friend-friend - and different strengths, and different flows of support and information. What of these more nuanced descriptions could be used in a publicly articulated space, and which could not?
  • Feld proposes that people have particular interests, common friends and pursuits, etc. that function as "foci" - and that connections are made when people with common foci are brought together. Some foci are highly constraining (such as being in the same family or research group) while others are lightly constraining (sharing a neighborhood or a popular taste) . Re-examine the social network you described. Can you apply this model to explain some of the groupings?
  • Identity in the real world is faceted: different aspects of our personality are expressed in different circumstances and around different people. For some of us, these differences are relatively minor, and bringing together people from different areas of our lives is not a problem. For others of us, these different facets are incompatible, and bringing them together is undesireable. How is this addressed in the design of today's SNSs? How might future designs address this?
  • Donath and boyd look at ways that social information is encoded in social networking sites. Use those readings AND your own observations in one or more sites to answer these questions: What are the qualities people signal through their profiles and displays of connections? What makes these signals reliable, to the extent that they are? Do they function as a means of providing reputation information? What motivates people to participate in these sites? How would you redesign them - what purpose are you designing for? What would you change? What are the costs and benefits of making it more costly to add links in a social networking site?

Please link your essays by Monday midday.