MAS 964  ·  Techno-Identity  ·  Spring 2005

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. Are social networks scale-free (Barabasi)? How many hops does it take to get from one arbitrary person to another? (Milgram,Watts)? What is the significance of bridges, structural holes, and other network phenomena (Burt) as well as the sorts of questions we'll be thinking about, i.e. 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).



Donath, Judith    Public Displays of Connections (or pdf)
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


and many others...

supplementary readings

These papers address other aspects of social networks. They are not required reading, but if you are interested in the topic, I recommend them.

Watts, D.J., P.S. Dodds, and M.E.J. Newman    Identity and search in social networks. 2002. Science 211 296: 1302-1305.
Milgram, Stanley    The small-world problem. 1967. Psychology Today: 62-67
Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo, Hawoong Jeong, Zoltan Neda, Erzsebet Ravasz, Andras Schubert, and Tamas Vicsek   Evolution of the social network of scientific collaborations. 2001
Burt. R. The social capital of structural holes. 2002


  1. Read the papers. You are invited to do so with Scott's collaborative annotation program - you'll need to be using Firefox as your browser and this plugin. Scott has sent further instructions by email. To use the annotation system you will need to read the html (rather than pdf) versions of the papers.
  2. Explore three different social networking sites (SNSs). One should be LinkedIn and the other two are up to you.
  3. Answer these 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • What are the benefits of making it more costly to add links in a social networking site?

please make your essay available by Monday midday