Gene Expression

Facebook is not a revolution

A follow up to my earlier post on information technology, In The Age Of Facebook, Researcher Plumbs Shifting Online Relationships:

“You can ask somebody, ‘Of your 300 Facebook friends how many are actually friends?’ and people will say, ‘Oh, 30 or 40 or 50,’ “ said Baym. “But what having a lot of weak-tie relationships is giving you access to are a lot of resources that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Because we do tend to cluster in relationships with strong ties to people that are pretty similar to ourselves. So they don’t necessarily know a whole lot that we don’t know. They haven’t necessarily been a lot of places that we haven’t been. They can’t volunteer to show us around Sydney, Australia, or give advice on a good reading on a topic. So there are all of these little bits of information and wisdom and social support that people can provide each other when they have a weak-tie relationship — and they can really open up access to resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

The 30-50 number should be familiar, as it is in the same range as what ethologists such as Robin Dunbar have been reporting for years in terms of how many friendships a human can plausibly manage. Social technology has limits in terms of how much it can leverage our innate capabilities. On other hand it seems plausible that the “long tail” of weak acquaintances can yield some utility in terms leaking more information into one’s social network from the outside. Quantitative shifts in network structure and scope on the margins may very well lead to qualitative changes in human societies, but I don’t think we’ve really thought through in much detail the substantive ramifications.


  1. #1 Coturnix
    March 30, 2009

    This is better. Online, the definition of ‘friend’ is different than the one used offline. A source of a lot of confusion.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    March 30, 2009

    And there is much more, e.g., this and this.

  3. #3 Mark Houston
    March 31, 2009

    I totally agree with Razib. Facebook is total tosh. I have been studying the effect of using Facebook as a means of communicating with friends and find the communications I’ve received, total garbage, with no meaning to my life. Who wants to know if I am brushing my teeth, or if a friends, friend of a friend, is eating donuts for lunch in Siberia. If anything, the only true description of Facebook, is that it is a real life representation of how the modern world has lost the plot.

  4. #4 agnostic
    March 31, 2009

    There was also an article in the NYT recently, “Is Facebook growing up too fast?” or something. Pointed out how far it’s moving away from the college and high school days, including anyone and everyone, making the appearance less offensive to most of these older-aged newcomers, etc.

    You think that, if Facebook does become a place where everyone goes, there will be an exodus of young people *back* to MySpace? They certainly haven’t tried to capture the older, looking-for-family demographic, and their appearance hasn’t changed to reel them in either.

    Maybe lots of those delinquent MySpace accounts will see new signs of life… except where MySpace never died, like out here in the Mountain Time Zone.

  5. #5 Dunc
    April 1, 2009

    Of course, most people (at least, people who leave the house) have always had a “long tail” of weak-tie relationships, and frequently more diverse than you’re likely to end up through on a social networking site… The principle difference is geographical distribution – which may make those relationships less valuable.

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