Online vs. Offline Social Networks

The Real Life Social Network is a great presentation by Paul Adams, UX Reseacher at Google, on the differences between online and offline social networks, and how those differences cause user confusion and even pain.  One of the main reasons for this disconnect, he claims, is that online social networking sites tend to put all your connections in one big bucket (Friends on Facebook, Connections on linkedIn, etc), where in real life, across cultures, people tend to have 4-6 relatively independent groups of connections, with 2-10 people in each group.

This sounds about right to me, but I wanted to see if I could see this in my own social network.  I used the excellent gephi network visualization and analysis tool, along with these instructions to generate a network graph of my facebook friends.

Graphed and clustered visualization of my Facebook friends. Just as Google predicts, I've got about 6 real world groups that I interact with separately, not one big bucket of 'Friends.' Click the image to see more details about these groups.

It looks like I’ve got about 7 discrete social networks (click the image to see more details, labels, etc):

  • College friends (mostly from the Hawkeye Marching Band)
  • Graduate School colleagues (fellow grad students and professors)
  • Current Work Colleagues
  • Church friends
  • High School classmates
  • Family
  • Former Job Colleagues (mostly from when I worked and lived in England)

I learned a few things in doing this exercise:

  • Facebook turns out to be a pretty decent proxy for my offline social network.  If someone were to ask me, as Google did in their social network user research, to identify my people, place them in groups, and name the groups, this is pretty much the list I would’ve come up with.
  • I’ve got more than 10 people in most of my groups.  However, this graph doesn’t really take into account the strength of the connections.  If I were to apply a filter to this graph that only showed people who posted on my wall, or who’s wall I posted on recently, I bet the number would be much closer to 10 per group.  And some of those groups would disappear.  Which leads to…
  • These groups and connections are dynamic.  My groups, and my attention to them, wax and wane over time.
  • I didn’t need Betweenness Centrality to know that my wife is the center of my world.  =)

Adams goes on to describe that the web is fundamentally changing because it is becoming a web not just of documents and data, but also of people and relationships.  He argues that designers must learn to build systems with these new constructs.  The desktop model of one person, dealing with one system, in a cozy office environment is broken.  Relationships, influence, identify, and privacy must be built into next-generation systems. from the ground up.

That’s a huge mandate for designers and engineers.  It means that your system model has to be extended beyond the HTML, Javascript, and SQL statements; beyond the server configuration and network bandwidth.  Beyond a single user.  When you think about your system, you have to  include and account for the collection of users — their goals, needs, desires.  You have to understand how they influence one another.  You have to understand how they want to segment bits of information into different social circles.

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  1. Pingback: More Facebook Visualizations in the Wild « Fitzgerald Steele

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