Joho the Blog » social networks

March 2, 2010

[berkman] Karrie Karahalios: Strong and weak ties in social media

Karrie Karahalios is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk entitled “Text and Tie Strength.” Karrie is a Berkman Fellow from the Univ. of Illinois.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[THE NEXT DAY: Ethan Zuckerman has posted his superior livebloggage. Please proceed there in an orderly fashion.

“What attracts people most is other people,” said William H. Whyte. People want to sit and talk. But what is the equivalent of a seat in a virtual space. Her group studies visualizations of group interaction. She shows examples, including how voting changes interactions, and how conversations cluster around topics.

Karrie grew up in a small town in Greece. Every Sunday her father would call from America. The call would come to the one phone, which was in a tavern. The people around expected the call and would participate. People use communication media differently in rural and urban areas, she says. E.g., rural communities used to like party lines; it was like a sub-net. Urban folks didn’t and the telephone companies moved to individual lines.

Her group sampled communication usage in rural and urban communities. They had five hypotheses. Rural people would have networks with:

fewer friends and comments

more women

more private profiles

friends are closer geographically

preference for strong ties over weak ties

The results showed that all but the last were true. In part this is because it’s hard to quantify strong and weak ties.

She suggests: Maybe there are two MySpaces: Rural and urban.

To understand weak vs. strong ties, her group explored Facebook. It’s quite binary: someone is either a friend or a stranger. The dog breeder who you met once has the same presence in your FB network as your husband.

Tie strength was invented by Mark Granovetter in the 1970s, in the book Getting a Job. Karrie says: “Strong ties are the people you really trust.” They help people through difficult times. And if a strong tie is depressed, you might get depressed also. “Weak ties are merely acquaintances.” Granovetter pointed out the utility of weak ties in “The Strength of Weak Ties.”

Her group looked at FB and wondered how to map FB parameters to tie strength. They set up a set of questions with continua, e.g., “How strong is your relationship with this person.” They assessed 2,184 friendships, from 35 university students and staff, along 70 parameters. E.g., friend-initiated wall posts, wall words exchanged, friend’s status updates, inbox intimacy words, together in photos, age differences, political differences, mutual friends, groups in common, links exchange by wall, applications in common, positive and negative emotional words, and days since first communication.

Her model had seven elements of tie strength: structure, emotional support, services, social distance, duration, intensity, intimacy. Her findings showed the relative importance of each of these (which I’ve listed in order, from least to most). The most predictive FB element was days since first communication. This may be because the first people you first connect with are the ones you are most tied to, although you may then not use FB for much communication with that person.

Karrie finds it quite interesting when her model doesn’t work. E.g., “This friend is an old ex” who was friended when they first began. She says that strong ties can be love or hate, although we tend to assume strong ties are positive; her model doesn’t include negative strong ties. Also, there are times when someone else’s account is used as a proxy for two others to communicate, e.g., neighbors who are feuding and only communicate through a three year old child’s FB account; Karrie’s model does not account for that.

How might this applied? Suppose you could organize your photos so your strong ties saw one set and your weak ties saw another? Trying to do this by hand is a nightmare.

They did this work in 2008. Then they wondered whether it applied to Twitter. The created where you can see the people you follow on Twitter. It clusters them by the strength time. Photo colorization and size indicate strength. Karrie says she’s been surprised to find that she’s more interested in what her weak ties tweet.

Her group is studying the quantifiable data (e.g., server logs) but will also interview users.

Q: Your model users linear regression on Facebook?
A: Yes.

Q: How about a geo-map visualization?
Ethanz: Someone recently did this sort of thing for Facebook. There are areas with cross-national friendships and some without many.

Karrie wonders if there is a single model for strong and weak ties that applies to all social media.

Judith Donath adds that following links is a strong signal of a strong tie, which is information that the WeMeddle client could start tracking.

Karrie: In FB, we took advantage of reciprocity as an indicator of tie strength, but reciprocity for Twitter doesn’t work.

Ethanz: Strong vs. weak is so murky. WeMeddle is a very nice provocation. Also: LiveJournal gives you valence, as opposed to FB that only lets you friend or not friend. At FB, every relationship is symmetrical. Twitter is more like celebrity: once you have over a few thousand people, you’re broadcasting. It’d be interesting to look at tech that enables a strong-weak tie continuum.

Karrie: There’s lots of lit on info flow, but not on how the strength of ties influences how you send info out across the network.

Judith: We’re all fooled by the asymmetry of Twitter, which makes for a bizarre set of ties. WeMeddle and your model might help us make sense of it.

Donnie Dong: Could WeMeddle combine FB and Twitter?
A: Yes, it’s possible. People would have to put in both logins.
Donnie: Twitter and FB are blocked in China. It’d be interesting to look at people who communities inside or outside the Wall.

Q: Have you looked at email? And have you looked at the connections among people twittering about disasters?
A: We haven’t looked at either of those things. Disaster relief would be fascinating to look at.
Ethan: There’s a report that during the Iranian uprising, there were only 60 Iranians tweeting, and the rest were Americans retweeting.

Q: Can you track how people gain trust, to move from outer circle to inner circle?
A: The trust problem is really hard. Trust with text — the literature hasn’t been very complete. With 140 chars you don’t get a lot of queues. On the other hand, looking at reputation systems might get you somewhere. I wish I had a better answer for you…

Q: [me] Doesn’t this suggest that strong and weak ties is too much of a polarity for the Web?
A: It suggests that trust doesn’t map to strong and weak. There may be several types of strong and weak ties.

Judith: Granovetter was really interested in homogeneous and heterogeneous ties.

Ethanz: Maybe look at John Kelly’s work on how blogs link to third parties. Look to see what everyone links to. You’ve got all the data, but if you grab the links people are linking to, you can imagine another way of clustering people.

Karrie: There’s lots of work recently about how information gets dispersed. E.g., to spread info quickly it’s better to have a network of people who believe things easily than having one large influencer. Also, it’d be very interesting to map people by complementarity, not just similarity. Overall, I’m really interested in how these ties evolve over time.

Wendy Seltzer: You could look at contextual work (a la Nissanbaum). E.g., do people name their groups at WeMeddle the same way, and how do people move people in and out of groups.
A: There’s a set of privacy questions. Suppose people publish the list of their inner circle. Why aren’t I on it? I don’t want to destroy any relationships with this work. What attracts people the most is other people.


February 26, 2010

From circles to networks

Just a terminological note:

Over the past decade, we’ve gone from talking about social circles to social networks. A circle draws a line around us. Networks draw lines among us.

(Yet more evidence — as if we needed it — that networks are the new paradigm. Bye bye, Information Age!)


January 11, 2010

Withdrawing from Facebook?

Marhsall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb doesn’t trust Mark Zuckerberg’s explanation of why Facebook is defaulting more towards publicness:

What makes Facebook think the world is becoming more public and less private? Zuckerberg cites the rise of blogging “and all these different services that have people sharing all this information.” That last part must mean Twitter, right? But blogging is tiny compared to Facebook! It’s made a big impact on the world, but only because it perhaps doubled or tripled the small percentage of people online who publish long-form text content. Not very many people write blogs, almost everyone is on Facebook.

The company’s justifications of the claim that they are reflecting broader social trends just aren’t credible. A much more believable explanation is that Facebook wants user information to be made public and so they “just went for it,” to use Zuckerberg’s words from yesterday.

I have no special insight into Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s plausible to me that he’s trying to be an idealist without recognizing that his self-interest is distorting his vision. (Who does?) And, yes, the state of his mind does matter, even if it’s not knowable.The presence of so many of our friends at FB creates an almost inescapable social gravity. But, if we begin to think that FB is not trustworthy or on our side, we will be more open to enduring the cost of switching platforms.

Meanwhile, I’m on the verge of taking drastic action with my own account. I made the early mistake of saying yes to everyone who asked to be my friend, primarily because I am pathologically adverse to rebuffing people. Not a good thing. As a result, only a tiny percentage of my FB friends are actually people I know. So, FB for me is all maintenance and no benefit. And I only do the maintenance about once a month. So, I should either nuke all my friends and start over (is there a one-click way to do that?), or I should “delete” my account and register under a different email address. Or leave and not come back.

Any advice?


January 4, 2010

[2b2k] Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia

I’ve put Chapter 1 aside for two whole days after several weeks of compulsive daily writing and unwriting (usually in the other order). In the meantime I read Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia. I had skimmed it a couple of years ago, but this time I went through it more slowly because his caveats about group deliberation are important.

Infotopia follows up on his 2001, which famously worries about the formation of online “echo chambers” on the Net that causes people to become more extreme and less open in their views. Infotopia asks whether and how groups of people can learn and make good decisions. While Sunstein professes to be optimistic, the book reads pretty much like a catalog of how groups make themselves stupider. Worse, the book is evidence-based. There are a lot of studies that support him.

So, it’s directly relevant to the book I’m writing. I will undoubtedly draw upon it for both its warnings and its advice. The advice in fact seems to be to recognize what groups are good at and what they’re not, and to make sure diversity is encouraged and rewarded. (I am oversimplifying, of course.) No argument from me on those points!

I found the book useful for a couple of other reasons, too.

First, overall the book warns that deliberation is not always the best way to get to truth. Sunstein knows that he’s here arguing against deeply held Enlightenment beliefs and against some of the notions that founded this country.

Second, underneath that is a notion of knowledge that I think is being challenged; it’s the task of my book to try to figure out what that challenge actually is and what it does to our idea/ideal of knowledge. I hereby freely admit that I don’t have a good sense of what I’m driving at. But, I think the difference is between thinking (a) there is a realm of fixed and true knowledge (even if deliberation is not always the best tool for uncovering it); and (b) knowledge is always in contention and is never settled.

Now, let me add the qualifiers to that last point, because they are so broad that they may well obviate the point entirely. There is clearly a realm of facts about which one can be simply right or wrong. If that’s all we me mean by knowledge, then (a) is correct. But, if so, then knowledge isn’t nearly as elevated as we’ve thought it is. It’s just facts. As we go up a level from facts (and facts about facts may still be facts, so this is a confusing way of putting it), issues are more contentious and more important. I don’t know if we want to call that contentious realm “knowledge” in any sense, nor do I care very much. The picture of the world is different no matter what you call it: Either (a) the contention is an inferior, preparatory state that has value because knowledge emerges it, or (b) the contention is the normal, natural and inevitable condition of us humans, out of which some facty knowledge occasionally precipitates and becomes commoditized.

Or, in the terms that I have using when I think about this for myself, knowledge squeezes differences out, while networked knowledge works by including differences.

By the way, Sunstein also concludes that group deliberation works best if it includes differences. But his idea of working best is that it drives out differences and settles the issue. I am suggesting that knowledge includes differences. I’m just not sure that I’m right, that it’s an interesting point, or that it actually means anything at all.

I had the whole book plotted out carefully, but the first chapter changed things. So, I’m trying to figure out what goes in the next chapter. I think I have a rough idea now. I think I have to explain what it means to say that knowledge is becoming a property of networks, which means showing how traditional knowledge arises from the printed medium. Then I think I have to talk about what this does to experts and expertise. Which actually is fairly close to my original outline. Well what do you know!

I’m working on figuring out how to open the chapter. I have an idea but I have to review some notes first…


November 13, 2009

My talk at the Canadian Marketing Association: Markets are networks

I gave a keynote at theCanadian Marketing Association‘s Marketing Week conference in Toronto a couple of days ago. It was a new talk, and I tried to structure it carefully. I’ve gone through my slides, and here’s an extended summary of what I said (or meant) in this 35-minute (?) talk.

Title: After Conversation: Markets as Networks.

Part I: Networked Markets

As Doc Searls said, markets are conversations. But, Doc said something else that I think is just as brilliant: “There’s no market for messages.” That’s harder for marketers to hear, since it points to the essential fact of traditional marketing: The people marketers are talking to generally don’t want to hear from them. And I want to add one more thought to this mix: Markets are also networks.

Traditional markets consist of demographic slices, i.e., “social groups” of people who have never met one another. We choose particular demographics because we think they are susceptible to the same message. Thus, traditional markets are not real things to which we send messages. Rather, messages make markets.

Now, markets are networks…networks of people who converse and interact, spread out across the Internet. For example, at any one moment there are some number of parents with sick children who are on the Net talking and posting, on blogs, discussion boards, social networking sites, Twitter, etc. etc. etc. But that networked market is substantially different in 12 hours because their kids are getting better. And of course 12 hours is an extremely long periodicity for these networked markets. They change constantly. Think of how ideas ripple through Twitter. Furthermore, not everyone in the market of parents with sick kids are in it the same way. The illnesses vary, the seriousness of the illnesses vary, the relationships vary. Think about the gay network in this regard: I’m sometimes in this network because I blog about gay marriage. But if you, as marketer, fail to recognize the complexity of the interests in this group, then you’ll be sending gay dating solicitations to people who don’t want them, including some who are in this network because they’re posting homophobic comments. Networked markets are rippling, ever-changing, hugely complex, inherently unstable, and thus thoroughly unlike traditional markets.

In short: You can’t step into the same market twice.

In fact, these webs of connected people are characterized by their differences as well as by their agreements, by their individuality as well as their connection. (Q: What is the opposite of message discipline? A: The Internet.) This is very different from traditional markets which are defined by demographic similarities. Networked markets are equally defined by their differences.

Part II: The network properties of networked markets

Networked markets take on some of the properties of networks. Let’s look at a few of those properties.

1. Markets at every scale. The Internet works at every scale, unlike any other medium. [I should have said: …perhaps except for paper.] E.g., Twitter works for Ashton Kutcher with 3M followers and for a tween with her 10 friends. But it is a different thing at each scale. The same is true for networked markets. It’s crucial to understand the social differences at each scale; thinking of Twitter as a single phenomenon is a mistake (for example).

2. Markets are held together by the same “glue” as networks. What holds the network together (not at the level of bits ‘n’ routers, of course) are the interests people express through their links. Likewise for networked markets. Shared interests, not messages, make networked markets.

3. Markets are transparent like networks. Because the connective tissue of the network consists of links, and those links tend to be public, the network tends towards transparency. (Note: tends towards.) I want to mention three types of marketing transparency that I think are crucial.

a. Transparent sources: We need to be able to follow links to the sources (the facts and conversations) that lead you to what you say.

b. Transparent self: We need to know you are who you say you are (no astroturfing or phony reviews!), but we also need to know that you know that you’re a fallible human like the rest of us. The posturing and perfectionism of traditional marketing increasingly will decrease the company’s credibility.

c. Transparent interests. The customer’s interest in a product often are not aligned with the company’s interest in selling it to her. The customer’s interests are complex (buying a bike to save gas money and to get some exercise and to save the earth and to feel like a kid), while, at worst, the company has a single interest. Because of this potential mismatch of interests, we need transparency about the company’s interests.

Summary: Transparency of (a) sources to trust your facts, of (b) self to trust you, of (c) interests to trust what you’re up to on our Internet.

Part III. Four challenges (plus one)

1. How does a marketer deal with the non-alignment of interests? At the very same time, the market may range from wanting to sing kumbayah to being near-violently politically opposed. Tough problem. Part of the answer is to be willing to embrace a straightforward advocacy (with facts and reasons and full transparency) about positions much of the market may disagree with. In a network based on difference, honest disagreement is better than a phony agreeableness.

2. Cluetrain advocated authenticity. Over the years, I find myself agreeing more with Chris Locke‘s skepticism about the concept. What does it mean for an organization to be authentic? It’s hard even to make sense of the term. E.g., does it mean that everyone has to agree with the founder’s opinions? Does it mean that people who are working there simply because it’s a job have to pretend to be enthusiastic?

3. Companies are hierarchical because hierarchies scale up to the size of an army (= the number of Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter followers). But hierarchies don’t interact with networks very comfortably. E.g., who speaks for the company?

4. Respect the conversation. Although markets are conversations, conversations are not markets. The conversations are more important than your marketing. And if you participate, then truly participate; don’t participate with the secret aim of subverting the discussion.

5. The hardest thing for marketers: Resist opportunities.

The End.

(By the way, here’s Marketing Magazine‘s brief write-up of the talk.)


September 25, 2009

Cluetrain on Twitter

Tim Beyers at FastCompany has put together an article about Cluetrain‘s reaction to Twitter. After all, we’re the “markets are conversations” people, so how do we feel about Twitter and its conversations getting valued at a billion bucks?

It turns out that the four of us think different things about Twitter, as Tim indicates in this brief article. My own view is overall quite positive, but compound. I don’t think Twitter is “closer than anything we’ve seen before” to an ideal conversational medium. Twitter conversations are pretty weird because of the brevity of tweets, but mainly because of the asymmetry of the conversation: If the people you’re talking to respond, their responses go to people who may not be following you, and you may not see their responses.

That’s not a criticism. It’s simply to say that Twitter conversations are weird, and not the closest to some Platonic ideal of conversation. It all depends on what you’re trying to do. Twitter is fantastic at some things, but not at everything. And it’s fascinating in all sorts of ways: as a social system, as a news propagation system, as a recommendation engine, as a reputational ecology…

In fact, one of the aspects of Twitter I most admire is its ability to work at multiple scales. As Chris Locke points out in the article, at Oprah-scale Twitter functions just like another broadcast, star-based system. But Twitter also works 1:1, 1:2, 1:100, and so on, functioning differently at each scale. That’s true of the Internet over all, but is not true of any (?) other medium.

So, I find myself both more positive about Twitter than a casual reader of the FastCompany article might think, but also less enthusiastic than one might take it as saying.


August 21, 2009

Kids with flamethrowers

Flavorwire posts about a project studying microcommunities that takes online flamethrowers as its topic:

The premise is simple; to showcase kids and their homemade flamethrowers. However, the concept behind the premise isn’t as cut and dry. Not just a music video, the ode to flamethrowers and the kids who make them is also the focal point of a case study being conducted by the Web Ecology Project, Tim Hwang of ROFLCon/Awesome Foundation and Sawyer Carter Jacobs, bassist for Family Portrait. Together the research team, which formed while working together at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, are using the video to highlight the “often overlooked universe of micro-communities flourishing in the nooks and crannies of the web.”

I’m a Tim Hwang fanboy, so I’m looking forward to what the project comes up with. You can vote for including a panel on microcummunities (with flamethrowers as its example) at SxSW.

On the other hand, I’m old, so I look at the video and say “HOLY MOTHER OF CRISPIES, YOU KIDS PUT THOSE THINGS DOWN THIS INSTANT!!!”

Seriously, someone should take these kids to a burn ward as part of a Scared Flame-Retardant program. And then Smoky the Bear ought to give them a singed-knuckle sandwich.

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August 17, 2009


I received this today:



Twitter has recently moved to shut down web promotions company, by claiming the advertising agency is “spamming”.

According to uSocial CEO Leon Hill, Twitter recently sent accusations via a brand-management organisation that uSocial are using Twitter for spam purposes. Despite this, uSocial say the claims are false.

“The definition of spam is using electronic messaging to send unsolicited communication and as we don’t use Twitter for this, the claims are false.” Said Hill.

uSocial believe the claims are due to a service the company sells which allows clients to purchase packages of followers to increase their viewership on the site.

“The people at Twitter who are sending these claims are just flailing around trying to look for any excuse they can, though it’s going to take much more than this if they want us to pack up shop.” Said Hill. “We’re not going away that easily.”

The service in question can be viewed on uSocial’s site by going to

Based upon this press release, uSocial is correct: It is not a spammer. Rather, it enables spammers. And then they spammed me to tell me about it.

uSocial also helps companies game sites such as by purchasing votes. uSocial is thus explicitly a force out to corrupt human trust. So, screw ‘em.

(The uSocial site is down at the moment. Check this post by Eric Lander to read about the site.)

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August 9, 2009


With it’s new Fresh view, Delicious builds on the TweetNews idea of using links in Tweets (and other measures) as a way to find what’s newest and most interesting. As the blog post about it says:

Underneath the hood, Fresh factors several features into the ranking like related bookmark and tweet counts, “eats our own dogfood”  by leveraging BOSS to filter for high quality results, as well as stitches tweets to related articles even if the tweets do not provide matching URLs (as ~81% of tweets do not contain URLs). Try clicking the ‘x Related Tweets’ link for any given story to see the Twitter conversation appear instantly inline.

It’s a welcome reslicing, not a whole new beast, but it seems useful.

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August 4, 2009

Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell Facebook

The military is trying to devise policies to govern how our service people use social networking sites, according to a story by Julian Barnes in the LA Times. The article implies the Pentagon accepts that military folks are going to use these sites, and there may even be some good that will come from it, but the military is concerned about security. At the moment, the Marines have banned accessing Facebook, MySpace and Twitter from government computers, to make sure there’s bandwidth for more pressing military needs.

Not that anyone asked, but it seems to me that the military would do best by treating social networking sites simply as another place service people will be gathering, just like in coffee shops, living rooms, and bars, and should therefore be training them in the use of social networking sites, with clear penalties for violating security guidelines. Which may be exactly what the military policy is heading toward.

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