This is a draft excerpt from my upcoming book ‘Social Circles’. I’d love to get feedback on it. This excerpt is from the middle of chapter 2: “The Real Life Social Network”. The plan is for each section in the book to broken up like this – multiple sub-sections, followed by a section with ideas for designers and marketers, and topics for brainstorming with starter ideas.
How interesting is it? How useful is it? How could I improve the content and/or the structure?
People belong to multiple independent groups
When we think about our social network, we don’t simply have friends, we have groups of friends. Research studies show that these groups form around different life stages, and shared experiences . For example, people may have a group of friends from school, and a group of friends from college. They may have a group of friends from different places that they have lived – their friends from Chicago, their friends from New York. Other factors that distinguish groups of friends include shared interests, hobbies, work, and changes in family situation e.g. someone getting married receives new groups of friends from their partner’s life. This may sound obvious to us, but it’s not how most online social networks are structured. Most online social networks have everyone in one big bucket.
A typical example of someone’s real life social network. They have a small number of independent groups, formed around life stages and shared experiences.
The people in each of our groups tend to know each other very well, but our groups of friends tend to remain independent. It is not common for friends in one group to know friends in another. My “college friends” all know each other, but they don’t know my “New York friends”. Our ties do not extend outward, reaching many people, but rather they double back on themselves inside our tightly clustered groups.
Our independent groups of friends mean that we often have conversations that are only relevant to one of the groups. Much content shared within groups will be meaningful for that group alone, and defined by the context of their relationships . This is currently a problem online, as we share status updates to all our network, extended across groups. Our update may have been meaningful for people in one of the groups, but not at all interesting for people in another. As a result, we’re often subjected to updates that we perceive as uninteresting, but which weren’t intended for us in the first place.
As groups are independent, knowing the people who bridge groups is very powerful. They are the people who can pass information from one social circle into another. They are not necessarily the people with the most connections. In fact, they may have a small number of connections, but they may happen to have lived in a few different places, or happen to have a diverse set of interests.
People don’t have one group of “friends”
Most social networks ask us to create our “friends” group. Increasingly, this means importing big friend groups from existing online social networks. The problem is, in real life, no such group exists. As we have seen, we don’t have one big friends group, we have different, independent groups of friends.
The word “friend” also means different things to different people depending on their culture and background. If you asked ten people to describe what a friend was, you would get ten different answers. They might say that a friend was someone they would trust to mind their children. Or they might say a friend was anyone they knew on a first name basis.
Not everyone in a group is equal
Although our groups of friends are small, usually containing less than 10 people , not all members of the group are equal. We are closer to some than others. We trust some people in a group on one set of topics, and others on a different set. Think of one of your groups of friends. Even though everyone knows each other well, there is probably one person you would trust to recommend a good restaurant, but another to point you to new cutting-edge music.
The fact that people in a group are not equal often leads to side conversations within groups. For example, when a group of friends are trying to organize a night out, side conversations often break out to resolve differences of opinion.
Ideas around groups
- When developing social features, consider whether designing for groups would be better than creating one big bucket of people. Groups better represent people’s offline social network, and depending on your product’s goals, it may be a better way to structure what you are offering.
- Avoid the use of the word “friend” when describing relationships. There is almost always a better word that more accurately describes the behavior you’re trying to encourage.
- If you’re designing for groups, give people easy ways to create groups, build group management into the flow of other tasks, allow custom names for each group, and allow people to rename the group if they change over time.
- Support side conversations. Allow people to fork conversation threads with a smaller number of people.
Marketers + Advertisers:
- Think about how you might build campaigns where you target specific groups rather than mass targeting individuals. How people describe groups can give insight into their interests. Knowing the things around which groups have formed can lead to much better targeting. A more relevant audience for you, and more relevant advertising for the audience.
- You can search for groups online and use the information about the group to understand if you should target messages at them. Be mindful of information that people consider private. Many people will consider information about their groups of friends as very private. Always give people control, and run all activities as “opt-in”. If people see tangible benefits to communicating with you, they’ll happily involve relevant friends.
- Focus on getting your message shared within a group as much as you focus on getting it to spread between groups. Messages shared within a group are likely to be relevant to more members of the group, as the members usually have similar attitudes and interests. Also, messages are reinforced by multiple members of the group, increasing the influence of the message.
- Don’t force the sharing of messages from group to group. If the message is relevant it will spread, but if it’s not, then look elsewhere. It’s better to not spread a message than risking appearing as irrelevant, or worse, as spam. Often, when people are not interested, they perceive legitimate messages from companies as spam. This does untold damage to brand perceptions.
How might we create marketing activities that involve groups of friends?
How might we create value for small groups, motivating individuals to involve their friends?
How might we ensure that our messages don’t get pushed to groups that aren’t interested?
 “Rethinking Friendship” Liz Spencer + Ray Pahl Page 89
 “Six Degrees” Duncan Watts Page 71
 ‘Flocking’ behavior lands on social networking sites