Category Archives: social networking

Kids vying to be seen as social influencers

Social butterfly; Flickr photo by massdistracton

Excerpt of WSJ piece on what PeerIndex calls the S&P rating of kids’ online social presence:

When Katie Miller went to Las Vegas this Thanksgiving, she tweeted about the lavish buffets and posted pictures of her seats at the aquatic spectacle “Le Reve” at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel.

A week later, the 25-year-old account executive at a public-relations firm got an email inviting her to a swanky holiday party on Manhattan’s West Side.

“At first I was confused,” Ms. Miller said. She read on to learn that she had been singled out as a “high-level influencer” by the event’s sponsors, including the Venetian and Palazzo hotels in Las Vegas, and a tech company called Klout, which ranks people based on their influence in social-media circles. “I was honored,” she said, sipping a cocktail at the $30,000 fete.

So much for wealth, looks or talent. Today, a new generation of VIPs is cultivating coolness through the world of social media. Here, ordinary folks can become “influential” overnight depending on the number and kinds of people who follow them on Twitter or comment on their Facebook pages.

People have been burnishing their online reputations for years, padding their resumes on professional networking site LinkedIn and trying to affect the search results that appear when someone Googles their names. Now, they’re targeting something once thought to be far more difficult to measure: influence over fellow consumers.

Some of the “influence” is real, but other youth are trying to game the system, befriending lots of others on Twitter in “one night stands” in the hopes of upping their own popularity and then dumping these “friends” a day later, or dramatically increasing their number of retweets in the hopes that they get greater attention or credit for Twitter traffic. Others realized that by raising the ratio of “those Twitter accounts following you” to “those Twitter accounts you follow”, they could increase their score. Companies are trying to use these services like Klout, PeerIndex, TweetLevel or Twitalyzer (which processes Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn data) in an effort to determine which teens are popular and trusted by others.

Read “Wannabe Cool Kids Aim to Game the Web’s New Social Scorekeepers — Sites Use Secret Formulas to Rank Users’ Online ‘Influence’ From 1 to 100; ‘It’s an Ego Thing’ ” (Wall Street Journal, By Jessica E. Vascellaro, Feb. 8, 2011)

While they are in their early days, it’s not clear that any of these companies yet score accurately the true influence of youth or adults, as evidenced by how this can be gamed.

See also, “Web of Popularity Achieved by Bullying” (New York Times, by Tara Parker-Pope, 2/15/11) that notes that “students near the top of the social hierarchy are often both perpetrators and victims of aggressive behavior involving their peers.”

Companies using social capital data for betting on people’s lives

Flickr photo by idletype

The Wall Street Journal recently noted  how insurance companies (Aviva PLC, Prudential Financial, AIG) bet on whom to insure at what rates through data mining.  Much of the info gleaned from online purchases and other digital traces is more lifestyle: is the insurance applicant an athlete? a TV addict? a hunter?

But some of the information is social capital-related:

Increasingly, some gather online information, including from social-networking sites. Acxiom Corp., one of the biggest data firms, says it acquires a limited amount of “public” information from social-networking sites, helping “our clients to identify active social-media users, their favorite networks, how socially active they are versus the norm, and on what kind of fan pages they participate.”

For insurers and data-sellers alike, the new techniques could open up a regulatory can of worms. The information sold by marketing-database firms is lightly regulated. But using it in the life-insurance application process would “raise questions” about whether the data would be subject to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, says Rebecca Kuehn of the Federal Trade Commission’s division of privacy and identity protection. The law’s provisions kick in when “adverse action” is taken against a person, such as a decision to deny insurance or increase rates. The law requires that people be notified of any adverse action and be allowed to dispute the accuracy or completeness of data, according to the FTC.

The article also notes that Celent, an insurance consulting division of Marsh & McLennan, indicates that such online social-network data could be mined for policing fraud and in making pricing decisions: “A life insurer might want to scrutinize an applicant who reports no family history of cancer, but indicates online an affinity with a cancer-research group, says Mike Fitzgerald, a Celent senior analyst.  ‘Whether people actually realize it or not, they are significantly increasing their personal transparency,’ he says. ‘It’s all public, and it’s electronically mineable.’  “

We’ve written earlier about other life insurers using social capital data in making insurance decisions, but in those cases, the individual was being asked directly about his social and civic involvement.  [See also this blog post about social capital and healthcare.]

We applaud the life insurers for coming to the late realization that social capital data is strongly related to health, but strongly believe they should be more transparent about what they are doing.  Then it wouldn’t violate privacy concerns and it would have the added benefit of making the insured better aware of the positive health impact of being more involved civicly and socially, which might actually induce those who are less engaged to become more so.

See earlier blog post on loss of digital privacy and digital traces left online.

Read “Insurers Test Data Profiles to Identify Risky Clients” (Wall St. Journal, 11/17/2010, by Leslie Scism and Mark Maremount)

The Friendship Paradox: using social networks to predict spread of epidemics

Nick Christakis and James Fowler (whose research we’ve previously highlighted) is back with research that shows how one can easily use “sensors” in a network to track and get early warning regarding the spread of epidemics.

They took advantage of the “friendship paradox” to do so.  In any real-life network, our friends are more popular than we are.  [This is true mathematically in any group with some loners and some social butterflies.  If you poll members in the group about their friendships, far more of those friends who are reported are going to be the social butterflies.  If far more people reported friendships with the loners, they wouldn't be loners.  See discussion here.]

Thus by asking random people in a network, in this case Harvard students, about their friends, researchers know that their friends are more centrally located in these networks.    Then one can track behavior among the random group and their friends, in this case the spread of H1N1 flu (swine flu) among 744 Harvard students in 2009.

Those more central in these networks (the “friend” group) got the flu a full 16-47 days earlier than the random group.  Thus, for public authorities, monitoring such a “friend” group could give one early indication of a spreading epidemic; they could serve as “canaries in the coal mine”.  If the process of spreading was person-to-person rather than being exposed to some impersonal information (via a website or a broadcast), one could also track the difference between a random group and a friend group to predict other more positive epidemics, like the spread of information, or the diffusion of a product, or a social norm.

We write in general on this blog about the positive benefits of social ties (social capital), but Fowler and Christakis’ study also shows you that having friends and being centrally located has its costs: in this case getting the flu faster.  [In some ways, this is analogous to Gladwell's discussion in the Tipping Point of how Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen may be disproportionately influential in the spread of ideas through networks, although Fowler and Christakis are far more mathematical in identifying who these central folks are.]

The “friends group manifested the flu roughly two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak using another method.

‘We think this may have significant implications for public health,’ said Christakis. ‘Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.’

‘If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now,’ said Fowler. ‘Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world – or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks.’

Christakis also notes that if you provided a random 30% in a population with immunity to a flu, you don’t protect the greater public, but if you took a random 30% of the population, asked them to name their friends, and then provided immunization to their friends, in a typical network the “friend” immunization strategy would achieve as high immunity protection for the entire network as giving 96% of the population immunity shots, but at less than 1/3 the cost.

The following video shows how the nodes that light up first (markers for getting the flu) are more central and far less likely to be at the periphery of the social network.  The red dots are people getting the flu; the yellow dots are friends of people with the flu and the size of the dot is proportional to how many of their friends have the flu.

Good summary of this research and its implications here: Nick Christakis TED talk (June 2010) – How social networks predict spread of flu.  Nick also discusses some of the implications of computational social science, which we’ve previously discussed here under the heading of digital traces.  Nick discusses how one could use data gathered from these networks (either passively or actively) to do things like predict recessions from patterns of fuel consumption by truckers, to communicate with drivers of a road of impending traffic jams ahead of them (by monitoring from cell phone users on the road ahead of them how rapidly they are changing cell phone towers) to asking those central in a mobile cellphone network (easily mapable today) to text their daily temperature (to monitor for impending flu epidemics).  Obviously these raise issues of privacy, which Nick does not discuss.

News release of study

Academic article in PLoS ONE

James Fowler on The Colbert Report discussing the book by Fowler and Christakis called Connected.


Nick Christakis presenting a talk at TED — The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. (February 2010).  In the talk he notes that while almost half of the variation in our number of friends is genetically-based (46%), that another equally large portion (47%) of whether your friends know each other is a function of whether your friends are the type that introduce (“knit”) their friends together or keep them apart (what they call “transitivity”).  About a third of whether you are in the center of social networks or not is genetically inherited.  Christakis believes that these social networks are critically important to transmitting ideas, and kindness, and information and goodness; and if society realized how valuable these networks were, we’d focus far more of our time, energy and resources into helping these networks to flourish.

Clever Obama iPhone application to use social networks

The Obama campaign has released an application for the iPhone that cleverly sorts your address book, prioritizing which friends you should call to convince them to vote Obama.  (“Call Friends” sorts your friends by how close the race is in that state. So you can call your Ohio friends or Missouri friends and not bother with your California or NY friends.)  It’s a smart marrying of the fact that friends are much more likely to convince friends politically, coupled with the technology that helps you to easily see where your social networks may make the most political difference given battleground states and the electoral map.  The ‘Get Involved’ Button uses GPS to help you find the closest Obama campaign headquarters.

Another interesting part of the application is that it shows how many calls you have made using this application and how many have been made nation-wide, enabling one to feel a growing sense of momentum and part of a larger national cause.  (The software doesn’t transmit who you called, but records the number of calls made with the application so they can centrally keep track.)

Download the Obama for America iPhone application here.

Here is the blog post of its developer Raven Zachary.

See earlier blog posts of mine about use of technology in the Obama 2008 campaign.  See also this one and this one.

Where being too social is suspicious

One hopes that this is not a sign of the less civicly engaged times….

Facebook has reportedly booted off some of their users who were, get this, too social.  Apparently their software identified these users as behaving suspiciously.

Eliabeth Coe got booted after she sent friends and professional acquaintances a link to her company’s Web site when they thought she was spamming.  She had to endure the Facebook-addict equivalent of Siberian exile — 31 days without being logged on.

Lisa Shane was organizing a high school reunion on facebook, when she got booted off for sending the same messages to more than 200 people. She was locked out of her account, contacts, RSVP list and details about the venue  one week before the reunion.

The Post reports that “Others have been kicked off the popular site for adding too many friends at once; sending too many messages; joining too many groups; or “poking” too many friends, a casual greeting on the site. Shunned Facebookers said the punishment contradicts the site’s core mission — to help people connect and communicate.”

In defense of Facebook, with 100 million users, they do have to battle an increasing amount of spam, fake messages and links, some generated by bots and malware. The Post notes that “About 64 large-scale spam attacks have been reported on social networking sites over the past year, and 37 percent of users have noticed an increase in unwanted messages in the past six months, according to Cloudmark, a Web security company.”

But we fear that the backdrop of lower levels of social capital makes any highly social individual appear “suspicious.”     On the positive side, maybe “necessity will be the mother of invention” and the Elizabeth Coes of the world can learn that it actually may be a lot more effective trying to make friends the horse-and-buggy era way of actually calling people and getting together.

See Washington Post story, “A Social Network Where You Can Be Too Social” (Kim Hart, 9/4/08).

What Quincy Jones, Paul Revere and Lois Weisberg have in common

Answer: they were all extraordinary social capital builders… (see links below)

While building stronger social networks has lots of benefit to you (helping you get jobs, be healthier and happier, able to mobilize others for entrepreneurial or political efforts, etc.), we’re much more interested in social capital because of the public benefits to those networks. In other words, if people have much stronger social networks, public benefits flow, even to those who are socially isolated, like more responsive government, less crime, better public health, less corruption, more trustworthy behavior of strangers, more well-working schools, etc.

Nonetheless, SocialMediaTrader has an interesting post on how to build one’s social capital and talks about how Paul Revere and Quincy Jones were extraordinary social capital builders. [SocialMediaTrader relates the story we've told before that it isn't a mystery why Paul Revere is well-known as the person who alerted colonists that the "British Are Coming!" whereas another rider William Dawes who also rode out to towns to alert colonists that same night is not. The difference was that Paul Revere knew the "social hubs" in these towns and thus the people he told, in turn told many others, so many more learned of the British plans from Revere than Dawes.  Dawes often told more socially marginalized townspeople who only told a few and word spread less quickly.]

Another very interesting article from some years back about someone with an amazingly diverse set of networks is “The Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” (by Malcolm Gladwell)

We supplied a social capital building toolkit on the Saguaro website which we hope you’ll use and give us feedback on.

Also Bill Sherman has a number of blog posts related to how to build social capital.

Anxious about non-friends inviting you to be their Facebook ‘friend’? You’re not alone.

I’ve written earlier about how odd it is to be invited by non-friends or the weakest of friends to be their Facebook friends and this post raising the same issue through humor troupe Idiot’s of Ants.

Turns out that sociologists now have a name for this angst: Social Networking Anxiety Disorder.

Nicole Ferraro of Internet Evolution writes: ” Speaking on a recent O’Reilly Webcast (The Facebook Application Ecosystem: Why Some Thrive — and Most Don’t), Shelly Farnham, doctor of social psychology, said, “A common problem in social networking applications is it’s hard to say no to people who want to be your friend,” adding that a number of applications ease this pain by allowing you to isolate 25 Friends (e.g., Top Friends).

“But what about when someone you don’t consider to be a ‘Top Friend’ per se requests to be part of that elite list? Truth be told, our social algorithms and applications just can’t capture the complexities of human relationships.

“Not sure if you’re suffering? Here are three symptoms of SNAD to look out for. If you have any of these, you should contact your mental-health-professional avatar immediately.

“1. You were considering breaking up with your significant other, but decided to stick it out because of the anxiety associated with changing your Relationship Status on Facebook and de-tagging hundreds of photos.

“2. You currently have 36+ Friend requests festering on Facebook or MySpace, which have built up month over month because you don’t want your rejection to send these strangers on a downward, emotional spiral.

“3. You belong to several groups including “I Skin Cats on Sundays” and “Cousins Make Great Husbands,” because, well, they were nice enough to invite you…”

To see Nicole’s whole interesting post, click here.

Social networking becoming more invisible but more ubiquitous?

The Economist notes that while social networking efforts haven’t found profitable financial models, there is evidence that they are migrating to more of a common model that is less proprietary and more in the background, like air.

“Historically, online media tend to start this way. The early services, such as CompuServe, Prodigy or AOL, began as ‘walled gardens’ before they opened up to become websites. The early e-mail services could send messages only within their own walls (rather as Facebook’s messaging does today). Instant-messaging, too, started closed, but is gradually opening up. In social networking, this evolution is just beginning. Parts of the industry are collaborating in a ‘data portability workgroup’ to let people move their friend lists and other information around the web. Others are pushing OpenID, a plan to create a single, federated sign-on system that people can use across many sites.

“The opening of social networks may now accelerate thanks to that older next big thing, web-mail. As a technology, mail has come to seem rather old-fashioned. But Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and other firms are now discovering that they may already have the ideal infrastructure for social networking in the form of the address books, in-boxes and calendars of their users. ‘E-mail in the wider sense is the most important social network,’ says David Ascher, who manages Thunderbird, a cutting-edge open-source e-mail application, for the Mozilla Foundation, which also oversees the popular Firefox web browser.

“That is because the extended in-box contains invaluable and dynamically updated information about human connections. On Facebook, a social graph notoriously deteriorates after the initial thrill of finding old friends from school wears off. By contrast, an e-mail account has access to the entire address book and can infer information from the frequency and intensity of contact as it occurs. Joe gets e-mails from Jack and Jane, but opens only Jane’s; Joe has Jane in his calendar tomorrow, and is instant-messaging with her right now; Joe tagged Jack ‘work only’; in his address book. Perhaps Joe’s party photos should be visible to Jane, but not Jack.

“This kind of social intelligence can be applied across many services on the open web. Better yet, if there is no pressure to make a business out of it, it can remain intimate and discreet. Facebook has an economic incentive to publish ever more data about its users, says Mr Ascher, whereas Thunderbird, which is an open-source project, can let users minimize what they share. Social networking may end up being everywhere, and yet nowhere.”

View full Economist story here.

Social networking: a social “eden” or dystopian tool?

Freakonomics convenes an e-forum of various researchers of the social effects of social networking sites. As we’ve noted on this site, research on the social impact of these sites is still in its infancy, and we’ve blogged before on what’s interesting and the limitations of Nicole Ellison’s MSU study. On balance, most of the researchers see that there will be both desirable and undesirable byproducts of these social networks.

I agreed with some of the interesting comments of Will Reader (we blogged about his study earlier): “Some doom-mongers have suggested that social networking technologies will eventually lead to a society in which we no longer engage in face-to-face contact with people. I don’t see it. Face-to-face contact is, I believe, very important for the formation of intimate relationships (and most of us crave those).” But since close friendships require large investments of our time and emotion, we want to make sure that others are worth this investment, and non-verbal cues obtained from face-to-face interactions are one of the best ways to gauge this.

Reader notes that “talk is cheap” on social networks. “Anyone can post “u r cool” on someone’s “wall,” or “poke” them on Facebook, but genuine smiles and laughs are a much more reliable indicators of someone’s suitability as a faithful friend….To return to the notion of social capital, we know that people are increasingly “meeting” people on social network sites before they meet them face to face. As a result of this, when many students begin university, they find themselves with a group of ready-made acquaintances. Given people’s preferences for people who are like them, it could be that friendship networks become increasingly homogeneous. Is this a bad thing? It might be if, by choosing potential friends via their Facebook profiles, it means that folk cut themselves off from serendipitous encounters with those who are superficially different from them, ethnically, socio-economically, and even in terms of musical taste.”

Reader believes that social networking will change our society but one’s own preferences will dictate whether it is a utopian or dystopian future.

We’ve written earlier about how the Internet is an especially efficient way to maintain social ties that were made face-to-face, but Reader is undoubtedly true, that for geographically based networks (like Facebook, generally centered on college campuses), Facebook activity prior to coming to college campuses may accelerate the process of making new friends and may also exacerbate our tendency to form bonding friendships at the expense of bridging.

And Judith Donath makes the point that we have made earlier that social networking sites often “cheapen” the currency of friendships.

See whole forum here. [Freakonomics asked Martin Baily, Danah Boyd, Steve Chazin, Judith Donath, Nicole Ellison, and William Reader:" Has social networking technology (blog-friendly phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) made us better or worse off as a society, either from an economic, psychological, or sociological perspective?"]

Obama using viral marketing in S. Carolina

“Cyber Stumping” (Direct, 2/1/08) reported on an interesting activation of viral marketing at Barack Obama’s Columbia, SC December event with Oprah Winfrey. The 30,000 attendees in the football stadium at Obama’s request texted their cell numbers to the campaign to get mobile campaign alerts and then each called four numbers on the back of their tickets to urge them to vote Obama in the primary.

Brian Quinton (the author) lauds this as a way “to data-mine a live event” and get 120,000 campaign calls made on the bills of the attendees. He notes that it enabled the Obama campaign to skirt governmental limits on calls to mobile phones by campaigns.

As effective as this was, one wonders whether they shouldn’t have merged information on where these rally attendees lived with campaign lists of uncommitted voters in their neighborhoods to give them names of neighboring South Carolinians to persuade.  Under the theory that friends persuading friends is more effective than strangers persuading friends;  that after all is what social capital is all about.

The *Direct* article also talks about campaign effort to make their online presence more interactive and integrated with their offline presence. “[M]ost candidates are using the Internet to spin their speeches and appearances in near-real time. Hillary Clinton introduced the “Fact Hub” rapid-response page of her Web site just in time to defuse a story that her campaign had stiffed a Boone, IA, diner waitress….Both parties also have embraced social networks, Democrats more so than Republicans. By mid-December, Barack Obama had joined every social net from MySpace and Facebook to LinkedIn (for business professionals) and niche sites such as BlackPlanet.com, MiGente.com (for Hispanics), AsianAve.com, GLEE.com (for gays and lesbians) and Faithbase.com (for non-denominational Christians). Last February his campaign also launched its own social net, MyBarackObama.com, to help early supporters find each other and to raise cash.” But Obama is being sophisticated in some ways: “Even before December’s Oprah tour, Obama event attendees were asked to fill out contact information. In the case of the Oprah rallies in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, those phone numbers were added to the candidate’s house list immediately. Attendees got a call from a staffer within 48 hours of the event thanking them for their support and asking for a pledge to vote for Obama in the upcoming primary.”