Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
Happy New Year, and welcome back. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday. This post is the sequel to my previous post The Social Dynamics of Facebook Fan Pages, which investigates an often overlooked weakness of FB. Previously, we explored the social dynamics that govern how people behave on the Facebook (FB) platform and particularly on FB fan pages. Due to the attention economy and the conflicting social spheres on FB, we actually arrived at a rather counterintuitive result. That being – the reason that a FB fan page (which is a community) is not engaging for a business is precisely because the FB platform (which is a social network) is too good at facilitating engagement among the strong ties. I must emphasize that this is not a technology problem. It is an inherent problem in how humans behave, because people naturally focus their attention on stronger ties and tends to ignore weaker one during any active engagement.
So what does this means, especially to brands and enterprises? It means that FB is superb at maintaining relationships (those that already have a relatively strong tie with you), but not very good at developing new relationships (those that have relatively weak ties with you). This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to the cyber anthropologists here, because the social anthropological role of social networks is to maintain pre-existing relationships. If you already have existing relationships (assuming that they are good relationships) with your customers, then FB would be an excellent medium to engage these customers. However, if you don’t have existing relationships with your customers, then FB is not ideal for building customer relationships.
Now that you know about FB’s drawbacks, we’ll discuss its major strength today. There is no doubt that FB, as a platform, provides many benefits to individuals. Otherwise, there wouldn’t over 500 million active users on it. But today, we will focus on the business use of FB for enterprises. Since we will use the social principles we’ve learned, I recommend reviewing the following posts before diving into today’s discussion.
Efficient Routing (Finding the Shortest Path) in Social Networks
To fully appreciate the true power of social networks, such as FB, I must give you a little historical context. So bare with me a bit.
I’m sure most of you have heard of network concepts like six degrees of separation and small world effect. In a nutshell, these mean that even though most people in the world are not neighbors of one another, they can be reached by anyone with small number of steps through a chain of friends. And this chain of friends often requires no more than six people. Note that there are certainly chains that are much longer, but the shortest and most efficient path, between any two persons is usually no more than six steps. So between Yu (the green bubble in figure 1 conveniently labeled Yu) and pretty much anyone on the earth (the red bubble labeled Al), there are only about 5 persons in between (the target, Al, is the sixth person) connecting the both of you (figure 1).
Although we know that there is a shortest path, with no more than six steps, the more challenging problem is, can we actually find these short paths?
Knowing this short path exists is of great theoretical importance, but to make this knowledge practical, we must be able to find them efficiently. So the big question is can Yu route a message to Al efficiently through the social network? That is, if we ask Yu (a random person in the world) to send a message to Al (another random person in the world), with the restriction that Yu can only send the message to her friends (people she knew at a personal level), and likewise for everyone else, how many steps will it take for the message to reach Al?
Clearly, if people continue to route Yu’s message through the social network, it will eventually reach Al. But how many steps will it take? Will we be able to find the efficient path (about six steps), or will we find paths that take many more than six steps?
To understand the challenge of this problem, let me point out an interesting observation: Within this shortest path, it is almost certain that you only know one person (two if you are in the middle of the path). As depicted in figure 1, Yu only knows Sue, but doesn’t know Ray, Kim, Jen, Ed, or Al (the target, which can be anyone on this planet). Between you and a fisherman in the Island of Kiribati (you probably don’t know where or even heard of Kiribati), there are probably only 5 people connecting the both of you. But how do you know who, among all your friends, will bring you one step closer to that Kiribati fisherman? In other words, how can Yu find that shortest path to Al without knowing anyone or anything beyond the first step?
If you think about this seriously, you will realize that this is not a trivial problem, because Yu doesn’t even know the fact that Sue and Ray are friends. Yu probably doesn’t even know who Ray is. So how can Yu know who to send the message to among all her other friends in the first place? And how can the network collectively find the shortest path to Al?
Navigability of Our Social Network
This problem has baffled many scientists, and consequently many experiments were carried out to investigate this. The most well known of these, is the Small World Experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1967. The surprising and repeatable result of this experiment is that, we CAN collectively find these short paths, and it really takes only about six steps to route a message to anyone in this world. This property of our social network is known as navigability.
As opposed to the small world property, which only claims the existence of short paths (average no more than 6 steps) between any two random persons, the navigability property claims that our social network can collectively find these short paths efficiently. Therefore, FB is a very efficient medium for spreading pertinent information, if it is a close enough approximation to the true social network of our offline world. In business term, it means that FB is great for driving awareness and creating interest.
Let’s revisit the problem of how you would route a message to that Kiribati fisherman (your target)? You will need to look among your friends and find the one person who has some traits that might connect him/her to that fisherman. For example, you may realize that Kiribati is an island nation in central/south Pacific. However, you might not know anyone living in central Pacific now. So you might send the message to a friend who used to live in Hawaii, since that’s an island in the northern Pacific, and this friend may know people who live in Kiribati. Or you may remember that one of your childhood friends’ family owns a seafood restaurant, so his family may know someone in the fishing industry who can eventually bring the message closer to your target.
In most cases the connections will be very weak and extremely indirect, because we don’t have much information about the target. All we know is a foreign address, a name that we don’t recognize, and his occupation. Moreover, the target is a random person that has no share history, common interest, or any relationship to your life. Therefore, trying to identify these weak and indirect connections to a random person will require you to know your friends pretty well. For example, you would have to know something about your friends’ connections, family, work history, past residences etc. Otherwise, you might not be able to find the best person as one step of the entire routing process.
So knowing our friends deeply is clearly valuable. The fact that we knew our friends well is what enabled the rapid delivery of relevant information on social networks. Because we know what is relevant to our friends, their likes and dislikes, their wants and needs, we tend to pass on information that are useful and filter out those that are irrelevant with respect to our personal network. Moreover, people inherently trust their friends more (see Figuring Out the Relationship Puzzle), so on average, people tend to pay more attention to information from their friends and pass on more information from friends.
Realistic vs. Unrealistic Social Network
I must emphasize that this is a property of our social network in the offline world, and it is not specific to FB. You probably have heard of the adage that “gossips travel fast.” The reason is because it is traveling on our social network from one person to another person. If you’ve worked with a social network, you probably notice how rapidly news spread when there are people who want to spread it.
The reason that FB is an efficient medium for driving awareness and an effective medium for creating interests is because it is a pretty good approximation of our offline social network. FB tries very hard to capture and reflect the real relationships between real people. That is FB tries to ensure that you are who you say you are, and your friends on FB are indeed your friends in the offline world. In contrast, although Twitter has networking capability built into its core platform, it makes no effort to reproduce our offline social network. Consequently, many relationships on Twitter are not real. As a consequence there is much more noise on Twitter, and the information passed around on Twitter is not as relevant or trustworthy as that on FB.
Having More Fake Friends is Bad for You and Everyone
So clearly our social network (and FB) supports efficient routing of information. The deeper question is why, and how are we able to do it? Turns out the reason has to do with the structure of our social network. Despite the sheer size of FB (having 500M users and growing), structurally it consists of many tiny overlapping networks. Recall our discussion on the Dunbar limit? On average, each person’s personal social network (a.k.a their egocentric network) is only about 148 according to Prof. Dunbar. In fact, average users on FB only have about 130 friends. So FB is actually a collection of 500M tiny little networks of roughly 130 people that overlaps significantly.
Now, you may recall that there is tradeoff between how well you know your friends (tie strength) and how many friends you have. The more friends you have, the less you can know about each one (see Where is the New Dunbar Limit?). This means you ability to find those weak and indirect connections will be degraded, when you have more friends. Let’s do a simplistic analysis of what could happen if people increase the size of their egocentric network just a little bit, so their ability to identify those weak and indirect connections are only degraded by 10%. What is the effect of this on our network’s navigability (i.e. collective ability to find the short paths)?
If figure 1 depicts the shortest path from Yu to Al, then Yu knowing 10% less about his friends could translate to Yu only have 90% chance of routing the message to the right person (i.e. Sue). What’s the big deal? The big deal is that this is happening for everyone. So Sue (or whoever Yu routes the message to) will also have 90% chance of routing it to the correct next person along the path (i.e. Ray). What happens is the error compounds each step along the way. So Yu will only have 81% chance of getting the message to Ray. Continuing this calculation, the probability of the message reaching Al would be (90%) x (90%) x (90%) x (90%) x (90%) x (90%) = 53%. This is barely above random chance (which is 50%).
FB has definitely created much value for their end users, but what is its greatest value for businesses? This question is rarely analyzed from a sociology and relationship perspective. I hope this article gives you a new perspective on what you might already know.
- Although there is only six degrees of separation between any two random persons in this world, finding that chain of six people (the shortest path) requires collective efforts from many people and it’s not an easy problem.
- Yet, it has been demonstrated that our social network is able to collectively find those short paths. This property is called navigability.
- This means that our natural social network is an efficient medium for spreading relevant information. For business, it is great for driving awareness and creating interests.
- FB’s true strength is in how well it mimics our real social network in the offline world. Without this, the information on FB would be just as noisy as those on Twitter.
- Based on a simplistic analysis with lots of assumptions, if everyone gets more friends and knows 10% less about each friend, our social network’s navigability could be wiped out almost completely.
The small size of our egocentric network not only enabled us to know our friends better, it also keeps information that is only relevant to a few well contained within one’s egocentric network. On the other hand, if the information is relevant to a broader audience, then the navigability and the small world property of our social network would enable each person to spread it rapidly to a large audience. This balance between relevance and reach is what gives FB to power to drive interest and awareness so effectively. By establishing a presence on FB via a fan page, brands can automatically take advantage of this power.
Alright, this post explored quite a few sophisticated network concepts. Next time I will try to wrap up our sociological discussion about FB and its business use cases. As usual, I welcome kudos (by clicking on that star symbol to the lower right), comments (by responding below), suggestions, critiques, and all forms of discussions. See you next time!