Monday, September 28, 2009

When is a friend a "friend"?

Tonight I am expecting my BFF to stay for a short visit. He and I have known each other since high school, and we get together about once a year to catch up. That visit, and a new book called "Connected," got me thinking about friendship and how we account for our connections in this era of hyper social networking.

You might want to read this post that I wrote a few months ago about when to defriend and defollow, I want to build on the thoughts that I mention there:

Ironically, just because we have lots of social network "friends" doesn't mean we really socialize with the vast majority of them, or even have met them f2f. (BFF is best friends forever, f2f is face to face for those of you that either don't have teens or have yet to grasp the lingo). In my case, I try to keep my contacts in LinkedIn with people that I have some business relationship with, and Facebook friends a bit looser. It doesn't always work out that way, and now I have given up trying to distinguish the two networks. I have found that over the summer a lot more of my blog comments have come through Facebook than through either email or posted on my blog directly. Why? I have no idea.

Anyway, the book "Connected" is written by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler and talks about the inner structure of our social networks. I found it interesting. According to a recent survey, the average American has four close social contacts, with the variation between two and six for most of us. That surprised me, and you can read more of the sample chapter here:

The two authors talk about the effect of social networks on particular behavior, such as obesity and revenge and other things that you might not be thinking about when you are updating your status or posting a new set of photos from the weekend. It turns out that our networks influence a lot of what we do, no surprise.

They also talk about the structure of social networks: a fire bucket brigade where each person is just connected to two people, a telephone tree-structure for the PTA, and a military collection of squads and commands are three very different structures of how people are collected together into a group. And where you are placed in your network – either at the center with a lot of dense connections outward, or at the periphery with just a few friends – can also make a big difference in how happy or healthy you might be too, according to the authors.

As you can imagine, there are network visualization tools that can help you understand the structure of your social networks. One for Facebook that I have tried is called Touchgraph and it allows you to select different subsets of your friends and see how they are related. With over a 1,000 friends, it becomes hard to see the relationships, but one of the things that I noticed – at least about my Facebook friends – is that there are a lot of people that I know that also know a lot of people.

If you find these concepts intriguing, pick up a copy of the book and let me know your thoughts.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.