An experiment with online social networking

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Andy Oram
Apr. 05, 2004 08:42 AM

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A couple people have told me that the hot new VC quarry in the Silicon Valley is social networking--a whole herd of new services such as Friendster, Orkut, LinkedIn, and a number of major companies soon to join them. One friend of mine, after complaining about the uselessness of social networks, begged me to invite him into one--because he's doing research to help his a company he consults with develop a competing social network.

The experiment

Reluctant to add more information overload to my creaking virtual shelf of resources, I joined a couple social networks some weeks ago after being pushed by various colleagues, including my boss's boss. I wrote up my initial impressions but didn't feel I had really explored the medium. So I decided to try a formal project that would acquaint me with the medium's strengths and weaknesses, and give a first answer to the question of whether a social network could help me where my usual channels of getting information could not. Since I'm married and have a job and friends and leisure activities, the test I chose was to find someone in an established discipline who could direct me to research in that discipline, one which I knew little about.

The subject was reading--in particular, whether twentieth-century media such as radio, television, and the Internet have changed people's expectations when reading and their ability to absorb information from books. (I'll probably get more useful responses from readers of this blog than from anything I've done up to now--but I'm giving away the ending to my story.) The information was not arbitrarily chosen for the sake of experiment; I really need it for a presentation I'm writing on trends in technical documentation, to be given at the upcoming O'Reilly Open Source Convention.

I had already tried my usual ways of finding information: web searches, a relative in the field of education, a contact I had developed from an article I wrote about Marshall McLuhan, a mailing list he pointed me to, and a couple similar gambits. None of them helped me, although I got encouragement that information on this subject did indeed exist. So I turned to searching my social networks.

One of the most popular networks proved right away to be unsuitable; it allowed searches only on a few characteristics such as whether someone is married. I assume more flexibility will be added in the future, but for the moment I can use the network only as yet an extra (unneeded) mail service, one where most of the messages are in languages I understand only at the pidgin level.

Another network had a sophisticated search system that impressed me. It was based on metainformation such as geographic location and industry, which users are encouraged to fill out when they join the network. Here is an example of the benefits that accrue when people take the time to provide metainformation. The buzz over social networks has apparently seduced them into taking this time, but they're not likely to do it often. Metainformation would help me find documents these people have written, but they're not likely to attached metainformation to their documents. In fact, they're not likely to update the metainformation they already have here when changes take place in their lives.

So I did two searches, setting the industry to "Higher Education" and sorting search results by "Keyword Relevance." I left other metainformation as general as possible so I could search for anybody. First I sorted for the term "reading," then for "cognition," and finally for "cognitive." The last term proved most fruitful, judging from the brief descriptions I read of the people it turned up. I thought the search and sort was intelligent. The top choice that the search presented to me in terms of keyword relevance was also my top choice based on the descriptions--and ultimately the person I corresponded with.

Now for the downside. My top choice was more than four degrees away from me. That meant I had to contact her cold, just as if I had found her name in a journal or on a web site. That's fine with me, but it eliminates much of the point of being in a social network.

On the other hand, another of my choices was three degrees away, which mean I could not contact him cold even if I wanted to, but had to go through the two intermediate people. This effectively meant introducing a delay of several days (and bothering the intermediate people), which eliminates much of the value of online connectivity.

As it turns out, the network itself introduced an artificial delay into my direct request to my top choice. So the response from her (she approved my request for contact) took four days, only one day less than the response from the person who was contacted through two intermediate degrees. (The latter person rejected the contact because he did not have the information I wanted--in other words, I guessed wrong from the descriptions he provided on the network.) A third request I made is to someone four degrees away and is still listed as "en route" after ten days.

So how did I do? My top contact provided me with detailed names, university departments, and terms to search for. So I think my use of the social network was worthwhile. So far, I have not found the level of (possibly simplistic) detail I was hoping for; the people she mentioned are into abstract concepts like "computational modeling" or at best "sentence comprehension." I didn't expect that I'd have to get an advanced degree and learn to do my own experiments in order to develop some general insights for my talk. But I can't say I didn't get what I asked for.

Some conclusions

I'm not taking myself off the social networks yet; I'm intrigued by what I achieved through this one experiment and would like to see how they develop. But I have a few useful observations based on my small experiences so far.

The artificial concept of "degrees" actually puts barriers in the way.

For most tasks, I'm more interested in what people know than whom they know. But the primary criterion by which social networks rate people--and really their whole raison d'être--is the distance between people socially. If I have to contact intermediate people to reach someone I'm interested in, I add a lot of extra time to the contact while straining my relationships by imposing burdens that offer my close contacts no rewards in return.

Anything over the second degree is equivalent to anonymity.

I might care whether Bill knows Bruce, should I care to get know Bruce. But I don't care whether Bill knows Bruce who knows Betty. At that point, I have no way of judging the value of a personal connection. The premise of the social network is like that of a country club that requires endorsements for people to join: when someone you trust marks someone else as trustworthy, it's supposed to influence your behavior. But the connection gets attenuated very quickly. The main difference between recommending members to an exclusive country club and having friends on a social network is that, when you recommend a friend for a club, you understand clearly such things as:

  • what kind of activities go on in the club
  • what criteria make a good club member
  • what rewards flow from being in the club
  • how important it is to be part of the club
  • how important it is to keep inappropriate members out of the club
and many other subtle social aspects of the club. All of these criteria are missing from social networks; they're too broadly defined. I'll repeat what I said in my earlier article:

I know a lot of people because they're interesting for one specific reason or another, and none of that means they're fit for some particular task that somebody else has defined.

How do you say that something relevant to one relationship is relevant to a different relationship with a different person?

For what I needed in this experiment, search was more important than social networking. I think the goal of the social networking services is to become more than search services, and to turn into true communities. (In fact, one offers a service called "communities," which appear to be much more than newsgroups.) I don't know whether that will work, what the services need to make it work, and whether the communities are enhanced by the "degrees" model of social networking.

Let me end by suggesting an exciting new networking opportunity that is not online and is very direct: Beyond The Soundbite. This political discussion was started by a relative of mine who was upset by the inability of most people to find good sources of information and good fora for discussing keys issues of our day. Examples of such issues from Beyond The Soundbite's home page include:

  • Is "No Child Left Behind" good for education?
  • Should the USA adopt protectionist measures to save jobs?
  • Has the new Medicare bill made the crisis over health care better or worse?
  • How important is the deficit?

Beyond The Soundbite is intensely local and personal. The organization brings in speakers and conducts roundtable discussions. The goal is to build up trust among people with different political backgrounds and keep them coming back over and over so they can deepen their understanding of each other's views. This is an old-fashioned kind of community-building, quixotic perhaps in an age where people don't even walk to the edge of the block their house is on. But I think we need it and I hope it spreads.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is