Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Social Networks And Group Formation

Understanding online social networks ...

"Humans suffer from information overload; there’s much more information on any given subject than a person is able to access. As a result, people are forced to depend upon each other for knowledge. Know-who information rather than know-what, know-how or know-why information has become most crucial. It involves knowing who has the needed information and being able to reach that person (Johnson et al. 2000).

In this context, understanding the formation, evolution and utilization of online social networks becomes important. A social network is “a set of people (or organizations or other social entities) connected by a set of social relationships, such as friendship, co-working or information exchange.” (Garton et al., 1997) While the Internet contributes to the information overload, it also provides useful tools to effectively manage one’s social networks and through them gain access to the right pieces of information.

This field is of particular interest to researchers working at the intersection of information systems, sociology and mathematics. These researchers study the uses of social networks and the ways in which they are mediated in society and in the workplace through information communication technologies (ICTs) such as (but not limited to) the Internet. This literature review explores how social networks that take advantage of information communication technologies – specifically, web based technologies – begin, evolve and are utilized.

The online social network field is broad, and any literature review can only focus on a selection of articles. The present article highlights recent research in the field and focuses on centrality, linkage strength, identity, trust, activity and benefits. By no means is this review comprehensive, but it should give practitioners some useful concepts to consider as they design social network based web applications.

The Strength of Weak Ties

Social networks were first researched in the late 1940s. With the advent of the Internet, online communities and social networking websites, their significance has only increased. Any review hoping to be meaningful must begin with the normative contributions of the sociologist Mark Granovetter and the mathematician Linton C. Freeman who both wrote influential articles well before the Internet was popularized.

Granovetter (1973) argued that within a social network, weak ties are more powerful than strong ties. He explained that this was because information was far more likely to be “diffused” through weaker ties. He concluded that weak ties are “indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their incorporation into communities while strong ties breed local cohesion.”

Granovetter’s doctoral thesis demonstrated that most people landed jobs thanks to their weak ties and not their strong ones. It was the people that they did not know well, the ones with whom they did not have shared histories and did not see on a regular basis who were of most help. This is because people with strong ties generally share the same pieces of information and resources. Therefore they are of less help to one another.

Similarly, Granovetter identified absent ties (also called nodding ties) – those ties that lack the emotional intensity, time, intimacy and reciprocity to even qualify as weak ties. Someone living on the same street that you nod to everyday is an absent tie. An absent tie is someone that exists in your life but with whom you have no connection whatsoever. That person is not helpful in the way that a weak tie can be.

Depending upon the type of application you are building, you may want to design it so that people are encouraged to form weak ties with people that they do not know very well. They are more likely to benefit from those weak ties than from strong ones. But it is important to recognize the difference between a weak tie and an absent one. On social network sites like MySpace and Facebook, where self worth is garnered through the number of ties, the difference becomes important. Yet, the fact that you can search and connect to all kinds of ties on these networks has influenced their growth.

According to Granovetter’s theory, there would be value in the visual depiction of weak ties. LinkedIn tells you how many ties you have at each degree of separation, but other than that you are not given much information about those ties. Are they strong, weak, or absent ties? LinkedIn has another problem too: It makes it difficult for you to connect with your weak ties. You often have to ask a common friend for permission to establish that connection. No wonder LinkedIn is being eclipsed by other social network services!"    (Continued via Boxes and Arrows)    [Usability Resources]


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