IA Summit: Online & Real Life Social Networks

by Luke Wroblewski April 11, 2010

At the IA Summit in Phoenix AZ, Paul Adams presented Google's research on the differences between online and real-world social networks. Here's my notes on his talk about Closing the gap between people's online and real life social network:

  • Social web: the web is undergoing a fundamental change. People source information from other people not from companies developing content. People are spending a lot more time interacting with others online. Every site will ultimately have some level of social features. We need to understand the fundamental principles of sociology to take advantage of this opportunity not just understand the technology we create.
  • Social networks are not new. They are hard wired into us. People don't have only one group of friends –they have several based on life stages, shared experiences, and hobbies. But most sites online focus only on one big list of friends.
  • In research with teens across multiple regions, similar patterns emerged. People’s real world social networks consisted of 4-6 groups of up to 10 people. People explained it was painful to try and mix these groups. Even online, most status updates have an intended audience but they usually go out to everybody.
  • 85% of people’s labels for groups didn’t have the term friends in them. While “friends” is used frequently online, this is usually an inappropriate term.
  • People think really carefully before posting a status update as they are not sure where the update is going.

Relationships & Influence

  • We need to design for multiple types of relationships including strong ties, weak ties, and temporary ties.
  • Strong ties: the average an American has is 4. Americans weekly speak with up to 10 people. Average number of friends on Facebook is 130. But people only interact with 4-6 people. 80% of phone calls are to the same four people.
  • Weak ties: Social networks make it easier to keep up with people we rarely see. Temporary ties: people you don't know but you interact with temporarily. Buy something from a user; read a review. These interactions end after the transaction is over.
  • Influence: we don't make decisions alone. We ask our friends all the time. Our reliance on social networks is increasing as information grows but our capacity to manage it stays the same.
  • The role of influencers is over estimated. The general theory is that an influencer can set what a group of people do. But we are most influenced by the people beside us. Our strong ties actually do most of the influencing.

Identity & Privacy

  • Identity: people care deeply about how they look to others. This is managed online with profiles. People self censor based on their perception of how people will see them.
  • Different identities are surfaced to different groups
  • Privacy: people of all ages care about privacy. Many people don't realize the conversations they are having online are public. It's our job as designers to make sure people know what is happening. Be transparent about is going on.
  • Online conversations are permanent. This content persists. Maintain privacy should be a top priority. Privacy leads to trust.

Social networks are not new. We have multiple groups of people that are not all friends and people don't call most of these groups “friends”. We have strong weak, and temporary ties. Strong ties are the most influential. Most online networks currently don’t reflect this reality. That’s an opportunity.