I know that it's good science to test common sense beliefs. It's never sexy, and it's tougher to get grants to do it, but - all the more reason, eh? And I've never previously been that interested in the study of ego-networks, the aggregation of results about the social patterns around unconnected individuals. It's always seemed too like the 'science of the central tendency' that I've been trying to avoid all my life.
As a psychologist discovering SNA, I've always been fascinated by emergence - of coherent vision from noisy neuronal firing, of thought from neuronal activity, of a single consciousness from a modular mind. So, in SNA, it was the emergence of intermediate and global properties (cliques, boundaries, bridges, robustness, adaptability, centralization) that was fascinating.
But surprise should always be respected. I've been reading Degenne & Forsé (1999), and came across some figures on the nature of individual social life that really stretched my credulity. If you like, read the question below and guess for yourself (answers below the line). I'm curous - is it me, or are these really surprising results?
If you were asked what, for a Western European adult, was the average number of
- (i) friends,
- (ii) immediate contacts (people you might approach to ask a favour, for example), and
- (iii) acquaintainces,
From Degenne & Forsé:
François Héran (1988b) summarizes that: ' The average adult sees seven kin per month, in-laws included. He has three or four friends, does one favour per year for one or two neighbouring households and belongs to one civic organisation. That sums up the social life of the average individual aged 18+ years living at home, i.e. in any non-institutional environment.'As many as 5,000 acquaintances? And only three friends? And these are averages. But what's really intruiging me is how this relates to the niches to be filled by artificial social networks: Facebook, LinkedIn et al. I'm party to a few of these - purely for research, of course - and I've often felt that each can feel a little ... strained, in use. And I now think this is due to the way that they take these naturally-multiple levels of 'friendship' (or tie strength, for want of a sharper technical concept) and flatten them into a single homogenous ring.
A personal network is a series of concentric circles centred on the individual. Acquaintances form the largest, a virtual network that includes everyone the respondent has ever met. The average for this outermost circle is about 5,000 people. The circle of immediate contacts is far smaller. The average respondent has only 100 to 200 people he can contact to link himself up to a target stranger. She has regular talks with fewer than 20 people per week, subject to variation with age, sex, education and other sociodemographic criteria. Again, real confidants average only three.
There's a business idea, here. Yet another social network start-up, anyone?