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Network Connections: An Analysis of Social Software that Turns Online Introductions into Offline Interactions
May 2003

Introduction  |  More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?  |  Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds  |  The Big Picture: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Directed Searching: Working the Network  |  Conclusions  |  Sources  |  Printer-friendly Version
"Designing social software is a problem that can't be attacked in the same way as designing a word processor. Designers of social software have more in common with economists or political scientists than they do with designers of single-user software." -- Clay Shirky, Social Software and the Politics of Groups[1]

Designing social software is hard. Making new friends or finding a new job is hard. Designing social software whose goal is to enable users to make new friends or find new jobs -- well, let's just say it's hard. Yet that is precisely what a whole new generation of social software is attempting to do: use online introductions and interactions to seed offline friend and colleague relationships. If successful, the impact such software could have on our social infrastructure is profound. But for this type of social software to succeed, it needs to be designed well, and for it to be designed well, we have to ask the right questions. What makes users more or less inclined to make the leap from the virtual to the real? How do you enable users to find the people they don't know they ought to know? What kind of measures must be taken to grow the community? To control the growth of the community?

In order to start posing possible answers to these questions and others, I have selected three case studies to examine in-depth: Friendster (, Ryze ( and Meetup ( Each of these online communities approaches the challenge of cultivating real-life relationships from virtual soil within different contexts and using different means. Friendster's mission is to facilitate friendships and romantic connections, Ryze's aim is to enable business networking, and Meetup's goal is to locally connect people around topics of interest. As such, they provide a good array of examples from which to glean lessons that might be useful to the future development of social software with similar goals. One possible social software goal that is not part of this inquiry, however, is online matchmaking.

While online dating services certainly create real world interactions from virtual introductions, forging real life friend and professional relationships in such a way is much more complicated. It's a goal newer to the social software scene and it's a goal tougher to achieve. The impetus to take a romantic virtual interaction offline is strong and obvious, because the physical component is integral to the nature of the relationship. Culturally, we also see dating as a lower cost social transaction. There is no implicit assumption that a date will lead to more dates, it's only a possibility. Dates are audition processes. And most people don't make the cut most of the time. Friendship, on the other hand, by definition involves mutual self-disclosure, duration and an investment of time and energy. Business relationships can effect professional reputations and a person's livelihood. Friend and colleague relationships are simply more complicated. While Friendster does include matchmaking among its site goals, I will only be assessing Friendster's ability to create friendships.

So, to begin my inquiry, "More is Different: Why 'Social Software,' Why Now?" provides a historical framework for understanding the genesis of social software designed explicitly to parlay online introductions into offline interactions. It traces the evolution of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), discusses the ideology that characterized early thinking about virtual communication and demonstrates the impact of the subsequent growth of the population of the network. The section goes on to address the adoption of the term "social software" and explain its significance as representative of a shift in our understanding of how virtual communication works -- and doesn't.

"Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds" describes some of the effects that the science of social network analysis has had on the way we think about the development and design of social software. It goes on to trace the milestones in the evolution of social network analysis in order to introduce and define concepts that will figure prominently in the discussion of the three case studies: small world networks, six degrees of separation, hop count, strong and weak ties, hubs, and power-law distributions.

"The Big Picture: An Overview of Friendster, Ryze and Meetup" serves as an introduction to the macro differences between the three forms of social software under scrutiny. The in-depth examination, "Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup," maps the case studies' functionality to some fundamental aspects of successful group and community interaction: Barriers and Borders, Nymity and Identity, Searching and Finding, Privacy, Social Memory and Governance. Each part begins with an explanation of how and why the characteristic in question effects community and group dynamics?both real and virtual?in important ways, and goes on to examine case study functionality through that lens.

"Directed Searching: Working the Network" focuses on a question of particular importance to designers creating social software that allows users to generate online social networks: how do people gauge social distance? Our sense of social distance is what enables us to perform directed searches for specific people in complex social networks. Without the ability to execute directed searches through a social network, the transaction cost of finding other users within the system is simply too high to warrant using the system. Finally, the "Conclusions" section summarizes my observations and offers a set of suggested guidelines, based on the successes and failures of the case studies, for designers looking to create social software that facilitates offline friend and colleague relationships.

John Seely Brown, author of The Social Life of Information, noted, "...centripetal social needs, which call people together, compete with centrifugal technologies that allow them to move apart."[2] By actively promoting and providing the functionality to support the creation of real-life friendships and work relationships out of online interactions, Friendster, Ryze, Meetup, and other similar forms of social software are attempting to resolve that tension. It should be an exciting ride.

More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now? >>>

[1] Clay Shirky, "What is Social Software," Social Software, 22 March 2003, ( (4 April 2003).

[2] John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), xix.

Introduction  |  More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?  |  Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds  |  The Big Picture: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Directed Searching: Working the Network  |  Conclusions  |  Sources  |  Printer-friendly Version

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Contact: Alicia L. Cervini
Interactive Telecommunications Program, 2003