A sociological perspective on social networks and brands

Posted on | January 27, 2011 | 52 Comments

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NetworkWhy do people join social networks online? I would argue that primarily to maintain their already existing connections. To keep in touch with their friends, not necessarily make new ones. In that sense, the term social networking site or service is not entirely accurate label for services, such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

In fact, “networking” i.e. making new connections does not occur nearly as much as you would think – we mostly want to socialize within the network we are used to.

Taking a sociological perspective on these observations gives the possibility to see broader social patterns in people’s behavior. Going beyond the individual and understanding how social forces shape individuals and their action in broader scope is something that every company should take an interest on.

Looking at the most commonly used social networks we can already tell that there are huge differences on how these networks function. The biggest implication on people’s behavior quite often is whether the service aims at reproducing our offline social network or not.

A service like Facebook for example is quite an efficient medium for spreading information. The reason spesifically is that it rather accurately resembles our offline social network. Facebook actually is working quite hard to reproduce our offline social networks. With our real-life friends we know what’s relevant and only pass on information we think is useful as well as filter out everything irrelevant. What’s even more important people inherently trust their “real” friends. Such services always emphasize the strong ties at the expense of weak ties.

On the other hand, services like Quora or Twitter have much more noise to them at first glance. The reason is that although Twitter for example has networking capability built in, there is no real effort to reproduce our offline social network. You could conclude that many of the relationships on Twitter aren’t “real” and therefore the information is not as trustworthy as on Facebook for example.

A great example on the effectiveness of spreading news and the role of Facebook vs Twitter in it on The Atlantic about the recent unrest in Tunisia.

…Facebook played a bigger role in this case, said Jillian York of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, who has been tracking the Tunisian situation closely. … Facebook allows for strong ties in a way that Twitter doesn’t. You’re not just conversing

One thing worth keeping in mind is the difference between a social network and a community. A social network is held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships between individuals. Communities consist of people with a common interest who necessarily do not have anything else in common. An individual is often a part of many different communities which can overlap and are often nested, but only have one social network that consists of many communities.

From business perspective this means that in order to harness the power of different social network sites and communities you really have to understand the inner workings of these services. You have to see which services are the ones where you mostly engage with your already existing customer base – the strong ties.

You’ll also have to identify the ones which are more ideal for building new relationships and capturing the weak ties. Understanding which spaces are communities and which ones are social networks helps a great deal on determining why  and where you should or should not participate.


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