The data behind The Real Life Social Network

Many people have asked me about some of the references for my Real Life Social Network talk. So here they are. I’m truly standing on the shoulders of others. For the most part, I’ve taken other people’s research and synthesized it, looking for patterns and trying to figure out how it all relates together. I hope the links here inspire you as much as they have inspired me.

Mapping people’s real life social networks.
I published a research paper in 2007 that detailed an early version of this process. I’ve since iterated on it a few times. The paper also contains some findings towards the end.

The magic number 150.
See this New York Post article where Robin Dunbar describes how different groups are made up of 150 people. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have also studied this in modern groups. For a great overview (with data) of Dunbar’s number and online games, see this blog post by Christopher Allen.

Strong and Weak ties
Wikipedia provides a good overview of the research literature on strong and weak ties. The seminal paper is Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties.”

We have a small number of strong ties
In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler describe one study they conducted with 3,000 Americans. See also research conducted at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California.

Average number of friends on Facebook
Various research shows that the average number of Facebook friends ranges from 120 to 180. For two examples, see “Rhythms of Social Interaction: Messaging Within an Online Social Network” by researchers at HP Labs, and “Social Network Activity and Social Well-Being” by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon and Facebook. Various research shows that almost all friends on Facebook are people that users first met offline. For an overview, see “The Problem of Conflicting Social Spheres” by researchers at Manchester Business School. For interacting with small numbers of our friends on Facebook, see “User Interactions in Social Networks and Their Implications” by researchers at UC Santa Barbara.

Phone usage and strong ties
Most of this data is from ethnographer Stefana Broadbent. See her presentation at the TED conference. Broadbent has done much research into how people communicate with each other. You can follow her work at In particular, see the article “The small size of our communication network”.

Usage of communication tools
The Pew Research Center have much research into this topic. For examples, see “Teens, Cell Phones and Texting”, “Social Isolation and New Technology”, “Social Media and Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults”, and “Twitter and Status Updating”.

Different types of friendships
For a detailed look at empirical research on friendships, see the book Rethinking Friendships by Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl.

For an introduction to cognitive biases, see this Wikipedia article. For further detail check out this full list of social cognitive biases. The fact that we make decisions based on our limited information is part of a theory called bounded rationality. The Tipping Point is nicely summarized on Wikipedia, including key ideas and challenges to those ideas. In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler describe how mutual best friends are most influential, how three degrees of influence works, and the concept of hyperdyadic spread. Other research papers that I reference frequently are “Identifying Influential Spreaders in Complex Networks” by multiple researchers at Universities in the USA, Israel and Sweden, and “Effects of Word-of-Mouth Versus Traditional Marketing: Findings from an Internet Social Networking Site” by Michael Trusov, Randolph Bucklin and Koen Pauwels.

How hubs work
In his book Six Degrees, Duncan Watts explores high and low thresholds for idea adoption, how hipsters influence within a network, the analogy of seeds in nature, and his studies on lists of music. Two research papers that influenced me on hubs and adoption are “The Role of Hubs in the Adoption Process” by Jacob Goldenberg, Sangman Han, Donald Lehmann, and Jae Weon Hong, and “Opinion Leadership and Social Contagion in New Product Diffusion” by professors at Wharton and the University of Southern California.

Multiple facets of identity
danah boyd has done some amazing research over the years, a lot of which relates to identity. For example, see “Profiles as Conversation: Networked Identity Performance on Friendster” by boyd and Heer. Ben Gross has also conducted some great research, see “Addressing Constraints: Multiple Usernames, Task Spillage and Notions of Identity” by Ben Gross and Elizabeth Churchill, and “Names of Our Lives”. Another good paper to check out is “Trust and Nuanced Profile Similarity in Online Social Networks” by Jennifer Golbeck.

Anonymous ratings
See the research paper “I rate you. You rate me. Should we do so publicly?” by researchers at the University of Michigan.

Awareness of Privacy
The following three research papers are a great place to start: “Information Revelation and Internet Privacy Concerns on Social Network Sites: A Case Study of Facebook” by Young and Quan-Haase, “Reputation Management and Social Media” by the Pew Research Center, and “How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?” by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania.

People underestimating their audience
See the research paper “Characterizing Privacy in Online Social Networks” by Krishnamurthy and Wills.

People misunderstanding privacy settings
Multiple research studies show how people misunderstand the privacy implications of their activities. For examples, see “Strategies and Struggles with Privacy in an Online Social Networking Community” by Strater and Lipford, “Expandable grids for visualizing and authoring computer security policies” by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, University of North Carolina, and Gonzaga University, and “How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?” by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania,

So, that’s a lot of links and a lot of research, happy digging!


  1. A very popular book about social networks and social network analysis is:
    Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (2002): Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means. Plume: New York

  2. [...] Adams, Senior User Experience Researcher at Google put this presentation together a few weeks ago, covering the challenges taking account of real-life social networks bring to web design. If you [...]

  3. [...] Better social networks The Real Life Social Network v2 And for a bit of background on the research that went into this, check this out: [...]

  4. Oh, cool. I didn’t realize until now, obviously, that this blog and the Real Life Social Network slideshare ‘go together’. – I loved that presentation. Very awesome. Thanks!

  5. [...] The entire slideshow is embedded above. Adams also compiled reference links in a blog post here: The data behind The Real Life Social Network. [...]

  6. [...] though I haven’t seen the presentation itself, I suspect it was quite good. He has some of his sources and further reading posted to his blog. var post_ID = 45 ; var post_name = ‘the-real-life’ ; var comment_count = 0 ; [...]

  7. [...] though I haven’t seen the presentation itself, I suspect it was quite good. He has some of his sources and further reading posted to his blog. [...]

  8. [...] bzgl. der sozialen Gruppen, den magischen Zahlen 150 und 7, die ich im Real-Life habe, gibt es eine ausführliche Betrachtung und einen entsprechenden Vortrag von Paul [...]

  9. [...] The magic number 150. See this New York Post article where Robin Dunbar describes how different groups are made up of 150 people. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have also studied this in modern groups. For a great overview (with data) of Dunbar’s number and online games, see this blog post by Christopher Allen. via [...]

  10. [...] para a elaboração de Real Life Social Network. Os links foram publicados por ele mesmo aqui no ThinkOutsideIn na íntegra. E para quem ainda não viu a apresentação, vai novamente [...]

  11. Paul, thanks for a fantastic contribution: the ideas and the presentation. You did a beautiful job at designing the deck so it’s really a good storyboard and understandable. I sense your curiosity and passion for the subject. Wanted to offer a couple links that I believe have synchronicity: I reviewed Robin Dunbar’s “Gossip Grooming and the Evolution of Language” here: – I believe you’ll love it, don’t let the title put you off, it’s immensely readable, and I introduce the ramifications of digital social networks that Dunbar doesn’t address. Secondly, I think you may find some of the thinking in this simple model of the Relationship Life Cycle Model interesting:

    In any case, thanks again for a fantastic contribution!

  12. [...] favorite line from a New York Post article that articulated this and referenced by Paul Adams in a follow up post citing his voluminous data sources was: “Web 2.0 can’t win over Brain [...]

  13. [...] — you have different types of friends, but only one social network. A UX Researcher at Google posted an article that explains some problems with current social [...]

  14. Paul,

    I am curious. i have the utmost respect for Google. In fact I think I respect them the most of ALL companies out there.

    Why? Yall are just so dang smart.

    So, after seeing that goog411 shut down, and seeing “why” yall had it to begin with, a question ran through my mind.

    As you know, there have been articles written claiming that zukerburg slammed his “top guys” in a room 7 days a week after you published this.

    And honestly, I must admit, that “if” google was planning on starting a social network, it sure looked slip-shot to give facebook such a good view into yalls thoughts.

    So here is the question——- “Could it be that yall wrote this article anticipating that zuckerburg would respond and implement exactly what he did in order to now start crawling the results, and adding them into your social graph?”

    I know that you can’t answer the question.

    But in light of the fact that Sergey Brin was quoted last week saying that “spidering/indexing facebook could be done” (loose quote), it really does not seem like such a stretch to think that results of planting that seed could really help yall.

    After seeing how you used my voice for goog411, it dosent seem so unrealictic.

  15. I read some information somewhere else that FaceBook will soon going to overcome google where they have already purchased their own search engine.

  16. [...] Resources: Images borrowed from slide presentation above courtesy of Paul Adams, author of Social Circles: How offline relationships influence online behavior and what it means for design and marketing [...]

  17. [...] You can see also the post on Adam’s blog here. [...]

  18. Wow. I am SO glad I have access to the journal articles through school. Too bad 90% of my classmates have NO idea that they have access to this kind of research. Oh well.

  19. [...] Wie und woher die Daten und Forschungsergebnisse für diese Einsichten zustande kamen, erklärt Day, der mittlerweile von Google zu Facebook gewechselt sein soll, übrigens auf seinem lesenswerten Blog. [...]

  20. [...] Influence Breakthroughs – The data behind The Real Life Social Network (2) [22Jul10] Posted on August 30, 2010 by admin Clipped from [...]

  21. [...] According to Google UX Researcher Paul Adams, Me will be a more accurate representation of our “real life social network.” One thing is certain, after the outright failure of Google Wave and lackluster response to Google [...]

  22. [...] about this. It’s called ‘Grouped’. Check it out here. – Here is an incomplete set of references. I’ll post a new set over the next few weeks. In the meantime, start by reading this book and [...]

  23. Lyndon Williams

    Thanks for this great list of resources to learn from.

  24. Thanks Paul , I know you from UPAChina2011. I have learnt a lot from the references.Best wishes for you.

  25. I raise all my friends to visit this blog…. and i hope they will positively like..