10. Social Ties: Networking Together

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Summary of the chapter


From "Virtual Communities" to Fear of Disintegration

A More Positivie Picture Emerges Over Time

Users Increase Their Connections with Preexisting Relations

Networked Individuals

The Internet as a Platform for Human Connection

The Internet and Human Community


Sources cited in the chapter

Other relevant readings

Case Studies

Supporting examples

In his chapter “Social Ties: Networking Together,” Benkler aims to answer fundamental questions about how the Internet is changing patterns of social interaction and organization. He takes on the overly optimistic views about the Internet—“Oh my god the Internet bringing us all closer together in every way!”—and the overly pessimistic ones—“We’re all just alienated from one another, spending all our time absorbed in screens.” The result is a set of impressively balanced, well-reasoned conclusions that claim that the Internet is enabling better, “thicker” relationships with people we already knew while simultaneously expanding the possibilities to manage better loose or weak relationships (357).

Unfortunately for his work, the timing of Benkler’s writing—early to mid-2005—meant that he just missed the boom of the newest wave of so-called “social networking” sites. Bekler's sole allusion to such sites is in a reference to another researcher’s work on the development of weak social ties in the first-wave network Friendster. The two most popular social networks that exist today—-MySpace and Facebook—-are nowhere to be seen. Their glaring absence from the text is unfortunate, not only because of their incredible cultural prominence and relevance to the chapter’s subject material, but also because the social behavior that occurs on both sites clearly reinforces Benkler’s own conclusions.

MySpace and Facebook don’t share much in common beyond their fundamental structure: a user pieces together a personal profile and then makes connections with others who have done the same. The two sites differ drastically, however, in terms of user capabilities and the size of the resulting network. MySpace is an open network with over 30 million unique monthly users that includes colors, streaming music, and blogs. Users have the capability to customize their "space" by using html, CSS, and by adding images, video, and audio. In a certain sense, it is a "free-for-all" type of situation, which can sometimes result in users taking it to the extreme (i.e. profiles specifically designed to crash your browser .) Facebook, on the other hand, has standardized user contributions to more easily present information and enable searches. Roughly a third the size of MySpace, Facebook is a collection of mini-networks at colleges, high schools, and now corporations that is focused less on self-expression and more on efficient information exchange. In both instances, users are spending around 15 minutes surfing the site a day, making MySpace the second most popular site on the Internet in terms of traffic and Facebook the seventh.

What is fascinating about both sites is that users sign up and immediately look to connect with friends from the “real” world. Peers from school, relatives, and coworkers are the first people that a MySpace or Facebook user “friends.” It is only as an individual’s usage continues that the net of who gets called a “friend” expands to acquaintances—the friend of a friend you met briefly at a party on Friday night or someone who you share a class with, but don’t really know. The third type of connection that occurs is random friending—connections made not because of any affiliation in “real” life at all. This third type of friend connection happens much more frequently on MySpace than on Facebook, most likely because it is an open network that doesn’t take root in “real” life communities like college campuses.

On both Myspace and Facebook, users are engaging in social activity that goes past simple chat rooms or one-on-one messaging and instead allows for personal expression and information transmission to a larger extent than previously possible. Benkler’s claim that networks provide for increased communication and information transfer between individuals who already know one another (like friends and relatives) is directly reflected on social networking sites. Up-to-the-minute information is available on your friend’s love life, her new interests, photos from last night’s concert, and now (only on Facebook) where she might be located in real time. Facebook and MySpace add another way to share information and communicate with people in general, but the first people to really benefit are most often close friends.

Similarly, the networks open up a new space for creating, preserving, and potentially strengthening what Benkler calls “weak ties,” a term first formulated by sociologists writing on social capital. In layman’s terms, these weak ties are the people that you know, but are not necessarily close friends with. They are the names that you would recognize in everyday conversation, but they are not the people you would call or email to spend time with unless you had some formal reason to meet with them.

With the creation of social networks like MySpace and Facebook, information on the weak ties in an individual’s life is collected in one place and thereby made more accessible when the need comes to “take advantage” of them. When one looks for a new job or moves to a new city, weak ties can become very useful to gain the much-needed social footing to make the transition. Preserving weak relationships—not to mention contact, job, and location information—has been extremely difficult until the emergence of networks like MySpace and Facebook.

A final advantage of networks that Benkler does not emphasize in his chapter but is increasingly clear with the advent of MySpace and Facebook is the opportunity to connect with individuals who share similar interests as you. Fans of music groups, supporters of political campaigns, and collectors of the arcane are empowered to find one another and associate more easily. Social networks go a step further than the “regular” web in encouraging the spread of interest associations. Whereas in the past, individuals had to search for a group related to one of their interests, a group leader can now search for people interested in the topic and ask them to join. The opportunity to create an association is now bi-directional instead of unidirectional.

It is impossible not to take note of the importance of the spread of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Even though they are radically altering the social landscape for the tens of millions of users who return to them daily, their growth seems to follow pre-existing patterns of the effect of the Internet on social relationships in general. It is a testament to Benkler’s analysis that the emergence of social networking sites has confirmed his own earlier conclusions about the effects of networks on social connectivity.


The Problems of Instant Messaging

Professor Benkler makes some great points about social networking on the Internet, but I think there are lingering questions about how effective Internet social networks can be as an extension of real-life connections. In particular, I think the use of instant messaging (IM) raises some concerns about the quality of those social connections.

It seems fair to consider “buddy-lists,” utilized by instant messaging programs, as a perfect example of Professor Benkler’s idea of a more networked individual. In the book, Professor Benkler mentions a Pew study on the use of instant messaging. While Professor Benkler mentions the study’s assessment of the number of Americans using instant messaging -- 53 million -- the study provides plenty of other reasons to believe that instant messaging represents an extension of terrestrial contacts.

The first reason to believe that instant messaging reflects an extension of an individual’s social network is how the buddy list is maintained. According to the study, people add contacts at a faster rate than they remove them. For example, 22% of IM users add people to their buddy lists every few months. In the same time frame, only 9% of IM users remove contacts. In addition, 44% of users say they never remove anyone from their lists. These statistics suggest that the buddy list grows as people’s social networks expand and do not reflect only their current set of frequent contacts. Thus, it is more reasonable to think of buddy lists as a social network than the speed-dial settings on a land-line phone.

The second reason to believe that instant messaging reflects an extension of a social network is that instant messaging has become a form of self-expression. As the study notes, 34% of users create profiles that are accessible to other users – these are viewable to those not on their buddy list. Profiles can contain contact information, personal information, inspirational or funny quotes, and links. This suggests that users expect other users to look at their profile and use both the messaging and profiles to keep track of contacts.

So Professor Benkler appears to be correct when he suggests that instant messaging should be considered an important part of the arsenal of tools available for social networking. There is little reason to believe that it replaces face-to-face human interaction. Instead, it would appear to be an extension of terrestrial social networks – particularly for maintaining connections with peers in geographically diverse locations.

That said, there are concerns about the quality of the communications expressed through the medium of instant messaging. In fact, these same concerns apply to e-mails and text messaging, as well as to the more collaborative and community forms of networked communications such as blogs and wikis. The concern is that even when these technologies are used merely to supplement face-to-face and phone communication, these tools can lead to misunderstandings and anger.

This danger was made apparent in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the study conducted by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Justin Kruger of New York university, they determined that the tone of e-mails is misunderstood almost 50% of the time. The senders of e-mails were quite confident that their messages would be understood, but they were often wrong. In comparison, when users vocally communicated their message the recipient was much more likely to understand it. The problem appears to be deeply rooted: “people aren't that good at imagining how a message might be understood from another person's perspective.”[1]

There are anecdotal reasons for believing this can be quite a problem. A Google search on instant messaging misunderstandings leads to websites such as this one by Danielle Weintraub, which lists “laws” for instant messaging. The first law states: “What you write is rarely read the way you would have said it in person, especially when you're trying to be funny.” The site then goes on to recommend and one should never fight with a significant other via-instant messaging. While only anecdotal, this site, and the others like it, suggest that that the tools of social networking have dangers. Even worse, the scientific studies suggest that we are largely ignorant of these dangers.

This concern is not just applicable to instant messaging or e-mail, but also to the collaborative tools of wikis and blogs. It does not mean, that instant messaging, e-mail, blogs, and wikis cannot be used to improve networking. However, it does suggest that if these tools are to become as important as Professor Benkler suggests, that more thought should be given to how we can use these tools to convey the full meaning of our writing. Any text-based statement (both old media and new: newspaper, magazine, book, blog, wiki, etc.) suffers from this weakness, but where the communication takes on a more personal and direct tone, as happens in many posts, instant messages, e-mails, and text messages, capturing the full range of human emotion becomes more important. Capturing that range is probably necessary for the Internet to become a stronger extension of terrestrial networks.

  1. Stephen Leahy, Wired Magazine, The Secret Cause of Flame Wars, Feb. 13, 2006

Key Concepts