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How Social Networking Works

Social Networks Provide Connections

Social networks can be defined as "our connections with other people." [source: BT Technology Journal] You're connected to your friends, who in turn are connected to their friends, and so on.

Your relationship to others in the social network can be measured by degrees of separation. Your friend is one degree of separation away from you. Your friend's friend is two degrees of separation away from you, and so on.

Six Degrees?
The popular theory that everyone in the world is separated by six degrees or less has spawned an addictive game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Interestingly, the original six degrees experiment, conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, has been criticized as an academic "urban myth." In Milgram's study, he gave a letter to random "starters" with instructions to get the envelope to its final destination by mailing it to people they know. Milgram reported that the letters arrived at their final destinations in an average of six hops [source: Psychology Today].

But according to Psychology Today, only 30 percent of Milgram's letters made it to their destination, making his findings less than reliable. But despite the faults of his original research, Milgram might have been right. In 2003, scientists from Columbia University published results of an e-mail study involving 60,000 people from 166 countries. It took an average of six hops to get a message from one stranger's inbox to another [source: Columbia University].

Social Networks as Social Capital
Social networks are important because they give us social capital. Social capital is the "resources accumulated through the relationships among people" [source: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication]. These resources can come in several forms.

  • Useful information: medical tips, driving directions, movie recommendations
  • Personal relationships: family, friends, neighbors, colleagues
  • Ability to organize and form groups: local government, sports teams, knitting circles

Social capital makes it easier for us to find useful information and increases a community's capacity to organize and achieve goals. Social networks can also breed negative side effects.

According to a New York Times article, Harvard Medical School researchers found that when some members of a social network gain weight, their friends are more likely to do the same [source: New York Times]. Obesity, therefore, is an example of negative social capital. Social scientists are exploring other manifestations of negative social capital, such as suicidal thoughts in teenagers and even autism.

connection diagram
This diagram shows how connections happen.

There are many relationships that make up social networks, and it's natural that some people in your network will be more closely related to you than others. Sociologists identify two major types of relationships in social networks: strong ties and weak ties. Examples of strong ties could be family, close friends and immediate co-workers, while weak ties could be a childhood friend you haven't seen in 10 years, the clerk at the bookstore or a classmate with whom you don't hang out very often [source: BT Technology Journal].

­We'll discuss strong and weak ties more on the next page.