Two interesting posts recently address the issue of the number and strength of online relationships within social networks. Andrew Chen notes that friendships are complex:
…friendship networks are actually very complex, and are poorly approximated by the “friends” versus “not friends” paradigm, or even the “friends”, “top friends”, and then “not friends” paradigm…
… in fact, once you have this social map drawn out, one of the most interesting questions you can ask people is how they figure out in what situations they should:
* call someone
* text someone
* e-mail someone
* poke them
* write on their wall
* write them a message
* meet them in person
…there’s a steady progression of “commitment” that it takes to go from writing on a wall (the least burdensome thing) versus meeting them in person (the most burdensome thing). In fact, one of the really useful things that social networks provide that e-mail doesn’t is a range of expressiveness in your communication such that you can use it for more things than sending notes or data across the wire.
danah boyd reaches related conclusions as she thinks about the value of inefficiency in communication.
Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I’ve found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they’d give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.
When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why? Because “it takes effort” to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too easy and it’s not surprising that teens have employed this medium to beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page.
Andrew found that sending or accepting a “friend” request was one of the least effort ways of communicating online (especially now that sending friend requests has largely been automated via email import tools). This leads to “friend” lists quickly growing to a size well over 150, Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship. So interestingly enough, marking someone as a “friend” in a social network is not a terribly good test of whether or not they are actually a friend.
Mining implicit data on behavior to create this structure is actually a better indicator of the real strength of relationships. Xobni does this via email; do any readers know of any third party systems that do this for social networks?