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Sep 04, 2008



I certainly know a number of people who collect Facebook Friends like other people collect stamps or sports injuries. Facebook therefore can not, in it's current incarnation be an accurate representation of a persons friendship group (though I suppose you could get that information by analyzing the originating and the destination profiles of certain types of traffic). Really all it says is, here is a list of people I have met and a bit of information about them. It's not much more than a Contacts list. I have one of these in my phone. There are about 200 entries. Is this my social network? I'd say not, but if they were in Facebook that would be my social network by virtue of the of the name society has decided to hang of this particular phenomenon.

So this poses two questions;
1. What is the definition of a Web 2.0 (sorry for the buzz word) social network, and
2. How does this fit in to the more traditional definition of a social network.

Sean Murphy

I think you are looking at a complex multi-dimensional spectrum and trying to lump it into three buckets. I think we are members of many different groups that interact in overlapping and partially overlapping ways. Instead overlapping concentric circulates I think a semi-lattice model is more appropriate. See http://www.rudi.net/pages/8755 for an example from Christopher Alexander "A City is Not a Tree."

With people that I have shared significant experiences I can re-connect and have serious conversations, if only once every few years. I think the categories are the wrong way of looking at the problem, or might have been appropriate 50 or 100 years ago when folks didn't move around nearly as much and there were many fewer options for electronic communication.

One business opportunity is a tool that allows a team to 'pool' their social network in an effective way. Another would be one that allows you to enable low frequency 'keep alive packets' with acquaintances (WeMeUS seems to be aiming for this). Most of the usefulness of social networks applications have been limited by their embrace of advertising driven revenue models that maximize page views instead of focusing on maximize user productivity.

Dave Marsay


I agree with Sean about the complex nature of social interactions, and wish we had an adequate language to describe them. I am also interested in the nature of 'who you would ask for a favour'. In some circumstances it seems to be based on a long-running reciprocal relationship, and in that sense not really a favour. In some cultures, one can ask anyone for a favour, as long as you are 'in' (e.g. not a tourist). There is a quite common intermediate culture in which in order to be in you have to identify a common almost-friend or group, so there is at least a theoretical posibility of reciprocation. I wonder how much of this richness can be mediated by social net tools, and to what extent the tools distort networks.

Mark Round

@All: I'm fascinated by the reality being picked at, here. Sean's suggestion that the categories might have changed is certainly tempting -- and any link to Alexander's ideas is *always* welcome! -- but I'm afraid I'm more of a nativist, myself. I recognise huge differences between the expressions of friendship in different cultures, but I still believe that universal drives and logic are being expressed. I suppose my original question could have been expressed as: do virtual social networks (necessarily) constrain the richness of human relationships (RHDS seems to think so). But I'm more interested in the nature of the human experience - is it universal? Anthropological comparison of observed (as opp. to virtual) social networks should give some answer to this, I know. Sometime soon I'll get round to posting a piece of relational models theory, which is one good answer to the nativism question.

Dave - I think it might be interesting to develop this further - fancy a slot on the blog?

Dave Marsay

Mark: As a fan of Lewis Carroll, I not only wonder if the categories may not have changed and if (whatever) constrains the richness of human relationships, but if the notion of category as a means of viewing (whatever) has outlived its usefulness and constrains human relationships - maybe even in a 'bad' way. At the same time, tools like SNA are clearly essential. The problem, then (as with much else) is to develop theories of use that can provide the context for routine use.

One argument against categories, adapted to this case, is a follows. Categories make sense in the context of stable systems, e.g. stable societies. But social networking is transforming social affairs. In math-speak, categories are the invariants of 'the system' - but 'the system' is changing. The use of the tools subverts their assumptions. Another (controversial) argument is that it would be inhuman to deal with our fellow humans as instances of categories, rather than as individuals. Arguably, then, any theory based on categories would be a part of the anti-social sciences.

Of course, in many cultures reliance on categorisation is endemic, and until a few weeks ago it was commonly argued that the economic and military strength of such cultures proved the merit of this approach. If this consensus were to change it would radically affect 'who we would ask for a favor', and SNA, for example, would not be of much help in understanding what was going on. Social Networking tools, on the other hand, could be very useful, and could help drive any change.

You will appreciate that I have difficulty in saying anything about the universalty of human experience, beyond yes and no - and don't know. I'll maybe ponder. Regards.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Mark Round

  • {mark.round at itoiresearch.com}
  • A reformed cognitive scientist, now interested in understanding and influencing attitude and behaviour, especially using social and cultural anthropology, working as a consultant in the UK.


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