You are who you know

The new social software turbo-charges friendships, sexual hookups and the business of human relationship -- and could turn our lives into an open book. Part 1 of a two-part series.

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Marc Canter is a social networking addict. On the day I had lunch with him in a Chinese restaurant in downtown San Francisco, he boasted a whopping 558 “friends” on the Web service Orkut. For most people, that might be enough. But Canter wanted more. Not only more friends, but more friends of friends.

His situation was dire. In a prankish campaign for the dubious honor of most friendly man in cyberspace, he had recently lost ground to another highly connected Orkut superstar, the Japanese new-media maven Joi Ito.

“SO — that means you all need to go out and make new friends!” read an e-mail sent by Canter to his network that morning. “Try it — it’s easy, just click!”

Social networking Web services are online gathering places that encourage their members to build explicit, hyperlinked networks of their friends and acquaintances. Since I am one of Marc Canter’s Orkut “friends,” I am connected to all of his other friends, and to all the friends of all those friends. Looking for a job or a date, or merely curious, I can point-and-click my way through the pictures, profile information and communities of the other members of my network.

There’s no question that Marc Canter is a friendly guy, both online and off. Sitting in front of me, stealing bites of Hunan pork in between one sizzling proclamation after another about the future of the digital lifestyle, Canter is the epitome of gregariousness. And Orkut isn’t his only playground. On Friendster, the most popular social networking venue, he has 124 friends. On Tribe.net, a kind of Friendster spinoff, he has 444. At press time, he was up to 749 on Orkut.

But to me, Canter’s numbers did not compute. How can a person have 500 friends? I struggle to keep close to half a dozen, much less half a thousand. When so many people are your friends, can those “friendships” be worth much?

Canter acknowledges that his Orkut network isn’t what anyone would call a closely knit pack of bosom buddies. The word “friend” is a bad term for describing someone you link to online. Reducing friendship to a click on a yes/no button is, Canter notes, “a complete joke.”



The accumulation of those connections on Orkut, for Canter, was part game, part marketing exercise and part simply a test of what in early March was the newest, hottest offering in the swirling nexus of hype and hope that is online social networking. Not since the glory days of the dot-com boom has a buzzword so thoroughly captured the attention of the media, the geeky early adopters, the venture capitalists and the mainstream. Social networking has arrived on your PC, and is coming to your phone, your favorite computer game, your chat program and anywhere else you might consider tapping into the Net. Depending on how you define the term, there are already at least 250 social networking sites or companies, and the mergers-and-acquisition crowd is eyeing them all hungrily. (On May 24, in the most recent such move, Monster.com bought Tickle, a site that includes social networking and boasts millions of users. On June 3, Friendster brought in NBC Entertainment veteran Scott Sassa to run the company.)

The promises made by social networking proponents are sky-high: They’ll get you jobs, get you laid, get you a party invite or a mountain-biking partner for next Tuesday. Social networking will empower communities, combat existential alienation and, best of all, could even be the key to ending spam. Social networking software — with its idea that human relations can be hacked, that community can be programmed — is a geek wet dream.

On the flip side, the critique is equally charged. Social networking sites are a hotbed for data-miners and marketing strategists, controlled laboratories in which the question of what human beings like to do and with whom can be studied with greater accuracy and detail than ever before. That geek wet dream turns into a nightmare; the social network is a state-of-the-art Panopticon. (Not that most people appear to care. Promise someone a date, or a chance at a job, and they’ll happily expose their most intimate secrets.)

Panopticon or panacea, social networking is hardly new. Most people started networking socially online, one way or another, the first time they logged on. It’s the fundamental fact of network existence: You connect. But what once was done by early-adopter pioneers typing from the command line over puny modems in primitive chat rooms and bulletin board systems is now standard practice for the broadband-hooked up, digital camera-equipped, blog-and-instant-messaging obsessed masses.

The venture capitalists and start-up CEOs call this “the return of the consumer Internet,” but the truth is that nothing ever went away. Our attention may have lapsed — I know mine did. After the dot-com crash, 9/11, corporate scandal and war, what people are doing online just doesn’t seem as world-changingly important as it once did, last century. But that doesn’t mean that we stopped doing things online — on the contrary, more people are doing more things online than ever before, and social networking is an essential part of it. Like e-mail, like using a search engine, social networking is a part of the Internet way of life. And it’s barely getting started.

One evening this spring, I attended an event at Trader Vic’s in Palo Alto, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California. The topic was social networking, a subject that members of the club were predisposed to be interested in, since, although it bills itself as a “public affairs group,” the Commonwealth Club is really an old-school social network.

The panelists that night included Jas Dhillon, CEO of ZeroDegrees.com, recently purchased by Barry Diller’s Interactive Corp.; Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, whose 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” is a foundational document in the young discipline of networking science; Ben Smith, CEO of Spoke.com, which provides social networking services to corporations; and Valerie Syme, executive vice president of Tribe.net, a company that aims to employ social networking as a tool for the delivery of local online classified ads.

A posting on Tribe.net had led me here. I found out about the event after joining a “tribe” called “social software intellectuals” — originally created by Marc Canter. A tribe, on Tribe.net, is what would be called a “group” or a “conference” or a “forum” on other community sites. Tribe.net is part of the second generation of social software networking sites (along with LinkedIn, Orkut, MySpace and others) founded by people who witnessed the explosive growth of Friendster in 2003 and wanted a piece of the action. (The founders of both Tribe.net and LinkedIn were early investors in Friendster.)

If you join a tribe, notice of relevant events to that group will be posted on your Tribe.net home page. It’s a simple, intuitively useful idea. Who wouldn’t like to be able to check their home page and be spontaneously informed of local events of interest, as recommended by your friends, or even as advertised to the specific communities you’ve chosen to join? Your network becomes your filter on the world, and the more carefully you cultivate and nurture that network, the better the filter becomes.

At Trader Vic’s, the audience had come for some clarity, but arrived armed with skepticism. For some Silicon Valley veterans, their carefully and painstakingly accumulated personal networks were their stock in trade, their competitive edge; why should they lay them out for all to see on the Web? For others, burned one too many times before by venture capital-spawned fool’s gold rushes, social networking sounded like the latest sucker’s pitch. To still others, the whole idea of linking up with friends — complete with a picture showing you to your best advantage and a profile calculated to make you look cool — seemed distastefully high-schoolish. On Orkut and elsewhere, random strangers were asking others to be friends on the flimsiest of bases. I read your blog, can I be your friend? Like you, I’m a Yeah Yeah Yeahs fan, can I be your friend?

But the not-so-secret secret of social networking is that flimsy is good! Flimsy is where the action is. Seek out flimsy, and you shall be rewarded. As Mark Granovetter explained, for what must have been the thousandth time this year, the counterintuitive key to social networking is that its value doesn’t inhere in linking up to your best friends and soul mates. You are far more likely, argued Granovetter, to find leads on a good job or a prospective date from the networks of people you don’t know very well.

You are already probably familiar with the friends of your best friend, or spouse, or close office colleague. There’s no fresh territory to plunder there. It’s those people with whom you have “weak ties” — the vague acquaintances, that guy or gal you once kind of knew, a little bit — who offer a path into possibility that you didn’t know was there. The essence of social software networks is that they are a clever way to organize access to the networks of people you aren’t actually friends with.

People, especially in the business world, especially salespeople, have been trying to figure out how to do this forever. But it’s a tough problem, because once you start dealing with a network that consists of the friends of the friends of your friends, you are confronting big numbers and big complexity. I have 50 “friends” on Orkut — my resulting network has 410,000 members, and is growing by 20,000 every week!

The human mind is not built to deal with networks that large. But computers make it easy. As sociologist Duncan Watts argues in “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age,” serious research into network theory wasn’t really feasible until the development of fast, powerful computers. Doing the math involved was simply too arduous.

In the past, the supernetworkers, the salespeople with the fat Rolodexes and the eidetic memory of names and faces, were exceptional cases. But today, creating an online Rolodex has never been easier. Point and click a few times, and boom, not only do you have a little network of your own, but you can suddenly browse through the hundreds of thousands of people you are linked to. Keeping all those hordes of almost-but-not-quite-complete strangers organized is a snap.

But if you can keep track of all those strangers, they can also keep track of you.

“There is something fascinating about collections of people,” says Bernardo Huberman, the director of the Information Dynamics Lab at Hewlett Packard Laboratories. Huberman boasts a résumé that stretches back to the famous Xerox PARC and includes groundbreaking work in a multitude of disciplines. Of late, one of the things he and his team of researchers have been studying is what you can learn about people from their interactions on a computer network.

In 2003, Huberman, Joshua R. Tyler and Dennis M. Wilkinson published a paper titled “E-mail as Spectroscopy: Automated Discovery of Community Structure Within Organizations.” In it, they reported on their analysis of a year’s worth of e-mail sent back and forth between the 500 or so employees of HP Labs. They paid no attention to content; they concerned themselves only with the “to:” and “from:” sections of the e-mail header. But from that data set they were able to create an intriguing map of relationships — clusters of HP workers who e-mailed among themselves at particularly high rates.

Many of these clusters mapped directly to explicit HP Labs work groups or departments, as one might expect. But others jumped across groups and transcended departments, revealing communities that did not exist on any official corporate map.

“Discovering that you and a great bunch of other people that are not obviously in the same organization seem to be exchanging a lot of messages and have some things in common might be very interesting,” says Huberman. In the paper recounting their research, the authors note that one potential application could be to identify terrorist networks.

“The Internet is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the behavior of very very large groups of users,” says Huberman. “There is, wafting around all of us, a cloud of information — we have cellphones, we have PDAs, we have the e-mail that we read … There is information that is implicit there … and we have been very interested in seeing whether we could do something with it.”

A growing number of companies are already applying similar research to their social networking services. If a corporation signs up with Spoke.com, Spoke will analyze corporate e-mail traffic to see who is connecting to whom and map the networks that result. So rather than have you assemble your own network, as one might do on LinkedIn or Ryze, Spoke derives your actual network from an automated analysis of your behavior.

“The real value to businesses in the current groundswell of social networking services is in the potential utilization of the conceptual underpinnings of these services to help uncover and connect to, as appropriate, the human nodes in their organizations,” says Judith Meskill, a technology consultant who maintains the Social Software Weblog.

Increasingly, pundits like to tell us, we live in a “network society.” Our most important relationships and communities are no longer primarily determined by family and geography. Particularly in the developed world, our atomized, alienated, transient lifestyles have resulted in our seeking community from those who share the same interests, or workplace, or some other kind of tribal loyalty.

“Networks,” writes Duncan Watts, “are the signature of social identity — the pattern of relations between individuals is a mapping of the underlying preferences and characteristics of the individuals themselves.”

“One of the main questions I start asking myself is about constructions of identity,” says Danah Boyd, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who is a ubiquitous pundit on the topic of social software. “How do people make sense of their identity? And over and over again it kept coming back to the fact that people make sense of their identity by the people around them.”

In other words, to quote one of the panelists at the Commonwealth Club: “You are who your network is.” You are who you know.

If all this is true, then online social networks are God’s gift to sociology. As late as the mid-’90s, notes Watts, sociologists who wanted to research social networks — how people related to each other, who became friends with whom, how information traveled through a social network — found their job very difficult. Information had to be gathered by hand, by passing out surveys, and the data was always suspect, because people might not answer truthfully, or even if they attempted to be truthful, might not be accurate. “A much better approach is to record what it is that people actually do, who they interact with and how they interact,” writes Watts.

And that is exactly what an online social network enables. When we sign up on a social networking site, we are diving into the petri dish, and gladdening the heart of every scientist with a key to the lab. If the network can figure out what groups you are part of simply by the patterns of e-mail sent back and forth, imagine what it can learn when it knows every last bit of data you have input into a five-page profile, which might include everything from your favorite breed of dog, your sexual orientation and marital status, to your turn-ons, bedroom accessories, and tastes in music, movies and books?

But that’s only the tip of the data iceberg. What if, in addition to that, it knows everything you’ve ever searched for on the world’s most popular search engine, it has access to your blog and it has been scanning the content of your e-mails so as to better target ads to you? Researchers with access to that network — to that online neighborhood where modern men and women spend ever greater amounts of their disposable time — will know more about you than you do about yourself.

Read Part 2 Orkut, the satisfaction of lust, and a promising antidote to spam: Where social software is headed

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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