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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
Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup

There is no codified way to analyze social software functionality. Design decisions often overlap and influence one other in ways that are difficult to trace. Indeed, ITP professors Clay Shirky and Jessica Hammer ultimately abandoned their 2002 attempt to create a taxonomy of social software, because they found that other than determining whether the software facilitated synchronous or asynchronous communication, the different factors weren't separate or clear enough to make large-scale, categorical distinctions.[45] While there is no formal set of rules to employ when examining social software, there are questions to ask that help illuminate user patterns, group culture and software efficacy. So, rather than examine the three case studies purely from a functionality perspective, I will approach my analyses by mapping software functionality to the fundamental aspects of successful group and community interaction.

In particular, the facets of flourishing communities online and offline that I will limn are Barriers and Borders, Nymity and Identity, Searching and Finding, Privacy, Social Memory and Governance. Each section will begin with an explanation of how and why the characteristic in question effects community and group dynamics--both real and virtual--in important ways, and will go on to examine case study functionality through that lens. The characteristics I've selected for scrutiny are by no means meant to represent an exhaustive analysis of either group dynamics or the three case studies. Rather, they are meant to serve as a foundation from which to begin answering the following questions: Do the case studies support healthy communities and user interactions online? Are they fertile grounds for planting the seed of real world relationships? What lessons can be gleaned from the case studies that might effect the design decisions comprising future forms of social software that strive to create real world friend and colleague relationships from virtual first encounters?

Case Study Analysis: Barriers and Borders
Clubs have velvet ropes, parties have guest lists and theaters have maximum occupancies in part because offline it's patently obvious that group size matters. Online, there may be no physical constraints to group size, but there are still human constraints. There's a reason we don't invite sixty people to a study group, forty people to a dinner party or thirty people to a book club meeting and it doesn't have to do with the size of the room: Groups have upper limits on participation.[46] Past a certain size, group communication starts to devolve into either an audience/speaker model or else into complete chaos. To create an environment in which fruitful group interaction can take place, social software needs to erect barriers to entry and also define borders within the community at large. Barriers and borders protect virtual communities from both scale and drift by controlling the number of users entering the system and providing them with the means to form smaller groups or subsets once they get there.

Barriers to entry can take the form of subscription fees, as in EverQuest, required invitations from an existing member, as in LiveJournal, or any other design decision that effectively slows the join-rate. Designing a good barrier, however, can be tricky; make it too easy to join and your community may get flooded and overrun, but make it too hard and your community may stagnate from the lack of growth. Social software designers must find a happy medium between throwing open the gates to new members and turning them away at the door. Well-developed borders within the system, though, can help alleviate the scaling problem associated with mass participation. By incorporating functionality that enables users to break off into smaller groups within the system, like clans on EverQuest or Friend lists on LiveJournal, social software designers can afford to make the barrier to entry more permeable.

Barriers and Borders: Friendster
A new user can join Friendster without being invited. However, join without being invited and you're a lonely node of one. Your personal network will have no members, which means you will be unable to see anyone else's user profile and there will be no one you can interact with on Friendster. Other than opting out at this point, the lonely node has two options. She can search all Friendster users by full name or email in the hopes that one of her real life friends is already in the system, in which case she can ask to be their friend (but can't see their user profile unless/until she is acknowledged as a friend). Or she can send email invitations to her real life friends in the hopes that they will join the system. Friendship on Friendster is reciprocal; both parties must agree that they are friends. Once a Friendster user becomes "friends" with another Friendster user, she gains access to that friend's entire network of friends up to four degrees of separation.[47] So the invitation system acts as both the barrier to entry as well as the mechanism that creates site growth. In theory, the maximum hop count of four is also a means of controlling the scale of the community for individual users.

There are three types of border on Friendster: a user's personal Friend list (which ranges in size from the single digits to the triple digits from user to user), a user's personal network and a user's Bookmarks. "Friends" are people one hop count away from you in your personal network, and ostensibly people that you know in real life. A personal network is the fraction of total Friendster users that a given user has access to through friends of friends for searching through, sending private messages to or exchanging BBS messages. There is no difference built into the system between the type of interaction a user can have with a friend versus the type of interaction a user can have with any other member of their personal network. So, in my case, the system allows me to interact with my 15 "friends" the same way it allows me to interact with the 27,067 other Friendster users my friends connect me to. Bookmarks are a private collection of links to other users that a given Friendster user finds interesting or otherwise worth remembering.

Site wide editorial encourages Friendster users to keep "building their personal network" and entreats them to "invite more friends." The heading of every Friendster search page is adorned with the names of the "most friendly people in your network" along with the number of friends they have accumulated. Such aggressive "friend-pushing" on the part of Friendster encourages users to invite more people into the network, but it also encourages users to collapse the network connections within their existing Friendster personal network. Why settle for being separated from another user by four degrees when you can friend each other and then be directly connected and considered "friends" by the system? Further incentivizing the collapse of network connections and accelerating user clustering is the fact that hubs dropping out of the system can cause a significant percentage of a user's personal network to suddenly vanish. A given user may not have been interacting with the hub, but they may have been interacting with another user they only had access to because of the hub. If a casual on-site interaction between users separated by more than one degree occurs, it behooves both users to friend one another sooner rather than later lest any of the crucial network connections that link them drop out. This would seem to work against the idea that first-degree Friendster friends are supposed to be people that users know well in either real or virtual spaces.

Friendster's borders do not seem to be an effective means of offsetting the problems of scale Friendster is likely to encounter as a result of the invitation system it employs. Uninhibited growth of both a user's friend list as well as a user's personal network is reinforced by site functionality, in ways both intentional and not.

Barriers and Borders: Ryze
Ryze takes a multi-faceted approach to creating barriers and borders. On the one hand, Ryze pushes users to invite more users into the system even more aggressively than does Friendster, but on the other Ryze also provides many more borders with which to make sense of the Ryze population as a whole.

The Ryze FAQ says: "Ryze is really about reaching out and making connections with others rather than creating a world with tight borders."[48] Site functionality and editorial certainly seems to make good on that promise. A link to invite new people to Ryze is on every single page, and a list of the "Most Inviting Members" is featured above the fold on the homepage. To post in another user's guestbook for the first time, you must invite another user, and the form for inviting new users is the default resolve page whenever a user makes a change to their profile. A "Ryze Leadership Council" consisting of 16 Ryze members who have made "significant contributions to the growth of the community based on the new members they have brought to Ryze" is selected every month and archived on the site.[49] Finally, Ryze generates an "Invite Report" for each user that catalogues the "Confirmed Recruits Credited to Your Invites," and provides users with a special URL, appended with a user's Ryze nickname, for posting to message boards. Using the special URL ensures that the user who posted the message gets "credit" for any "recruits" who find their way to Ryze via the message board post. So, Ryze has built a great deal of positive reinforcement for user recruiting into the system. Ryze seems to be throwing the gates open.

However, all new members to Ryze have a basic membership by default. Basic membership offers such paltry functionality that it's fair to say Ryze's most significant barrier to entry is actually a subscription fee, despite its apparent open door policies. Ryze membership is offered in Bronze, Silver and Gold packages, each enabling successively more sophisticated means of finding specific users within the system. Ryze enlists the help of its user base to grow the population as quickly as possible, but then gives the best tools for sorting through that population only to those willing to pay a fee for the added functionality. While paid subscribers have access to the most sophisticated search functionality (discussed at length in the Search section), a fact which dramatically enhances the site experience, basic members still have limited access to other means of making sense of the Ryze population as a whole.

Ryze "Networks," also called "tribes" on the site, form one type of border within the system. Networks are groupings of Ryze users around a shared interest or topic. Networks range in character from professional, like the Entertainment Industry Network, to geographical, like the Northern California Natives Network, to frivolous, like the Chocophiles Network. Currently, a user can join an unlimited number of Networks. Network memberships are listed on a user's Ryze page and are visible to the community at large. Only Gold members may create a Network, and they may only create one. Network members communicate with one another about the topic at hand via a designated Network message board. Network moderation is transferable to another Gold member if the original creator no longer wishes to moderate. (Interestingly, many users have requested polling/surveying capability to be built into Ryze Networks -- no doubt because group decision-making is hard. At this time, however, this functionality does not exist.)

Ryze also features a "Friends" list. Users can create links to friends on Ryze, which are then displayed in the Friend section of a user's Ryze page. What exactly a Ryze friend is, however, is not altogether clear. An "Add as Friend" link is available on every user's Ryze page, which would seem to encourage users to friend people whose pages they simply find interesting. Furthermore, "Friendship" on Ryze is not necessarily reciprocal, as a user does not need permission to add another user to their friend list. Friends are not automatically notified if you add or remove them from your friends list. While Ryze friends, unlike Friendster friends, are not necessarily meant to be people you know in real life, Ryze users can add friends to their friend list who are not yet members of Ryze. A truncated version of their email address appears on your list. If they join the system later, their full name is automatically filled in as it is with other Ryze users.

Another border within the Ryze system is the "Contact" list. A user's Contact list is private and cannot be viewed by other Ryzers. It enables users to save links to Ryze members they find interesting, and keep track of contact information for people who are not in the system as well. When you elect to list a Ryze member as a contact, however, they are notified so that they can choose to release more personal contact information to you or not. Ryze users are able to set default permissions on their personal contact information, should another Ryzer ever choose to make them a contact. They can also, however, set Contact permissions on an item by item basis for particular users. So, a user can opt to provide their work number and AIM handle, but keep their home phone number private, for a specific Ryzer should that Ryzer ever decide to list them as a contact.

Finally, "Events" form yet another border within the Ryze community. Events are face to face gatherings of Ryze members that are publicized and organized on the site. Any member can submit an event, and events run the gamut from official Ryze business networking mixers, to featured speakers, to film festivals, to Network oriented social get-togethers. Submitted events can be made public, in which case they are posted to the Events Calendar and visible to all members of Ryze, or they can be private, in which case invitations are emailed to specific Ryze members only. Every Ryze event has its own page where Ryze members can find out more about the event, and which other Ryzers will be in attendance.

While Ryze recruits new members rigorously, it also provides many borders within the system to help bring order to its spreading population. The various means at Ryze users' disposal for creating affiliation within the system will certainly help with scaling problems on Ryze. However, event-centric social software that acts as a broker for face to face meetings must also be concerned with another facet of the scaling problem: the upper limits on real life get-togethers. A Ryze user expressed this very sentiment in a guestbook post to the founder's user page:
"Have you given any thought on what Ryze will be like in 2 years? 5 years? I'm somewhat concerned because the growing member base can make 'the small community feel' diminished. For example, look at AOL -- when I joined in 1994, everybody was friendly and cordial. Nowadays it's a sea of strangers. Can you imagine over 2000 people at your Ryze mixer? (That's a lot of sushi)" -- posted to Adrian Scott's guestbook 3/20/03[50]

There are currently no upper limits on Event participation indicated on Ryze.

Barriers and Borders: Meetup
To grow the site population, Meetup provides a "Tell Friends" tab on every meetup page, as well as a graphic and link that can be used to publicize a user's participation in a meetup on the web. The primary barrier to entry on Meetup is that there's no reason whatsoever to join the system unless you actually want to attend a meetup. Since there is no functionality to support user-to-user interaction, other than a very small, unthreaded BBS for each meetup (that can only be posted to by users who have indicated interest in attending that particular meetup), the software can't really get flooded with users. On the other hand, as we've seen with Ryze, scale might prove to be a problem for the meetup itself. A meetup with fifteen attendees would be very different than a meetup with two hundred attendees. While Meetup administrators cancel meetups with fewer than five confirmed participants, there is currently no upper limit on meetup participation indicated on the site.

As Meetup's goal is to locally connect people around specific topics of interest, borders on the site are intuitive and form along lines of meetup topic and city. So, if I have expressed interest in the LiveJournal meetup in New York, I can see and post to the Attendees BBS of that meetup. On the other hand, I can see, but not post to, the LiveJournal BBS for the San Francisco meetup. So, meetup topic is one border, but meetup city is the border that dictates user interaction. There are no borders on Meetup created by user relationships or user-to-user interaction, no way to indicate "friendship." Although, by expressing interest in a meetup, presumably you are indicating an affinity of some kind with everyone else interested in the same meetup.

Case Study Analysis: Nymity and Identity
Communities are social structures with rules (tacit or otherwise) and customs. These norms form over time and are predicated upon the presence of accountability within the group. If someone believes they will be held responsible for their actions, they will modify their behaviors to make them acceptable to the group.[51] Offline, accountability is rolled up in physical presence: you are accountable because you were there and people saw you. Online, presence is not necessarily coupled with identity.

The use of consistent pseudonymity in online environments is necessary for the creation of healthy online communities because it forges a system of accountability in the absence of physical presence. In addition, the flip side of accountability is the ability to build social capital. If I can be held accountable for my actions, that may discourage me from acts of mischief, but it may also inspire me to acts of altruism. Consistent pseudonymity means I have a name that I can tie a reputation to. So, while consistent pseudonymity is certainly not the only measure of a thriving online community, the degree to which users create identities for themselves in an online environment can be an indicator of whether or not those users have the potential to form groups and healthy communities.

The identity imperative is even more important for social software that hopes to leverage robust online communities into offline interactions and relationships. It may be true that on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, but they figure it out pretty quickly once you meet them at the local coffee shop. The more of a schism there appears to be between the identity a user forges for themselves online and the identity they project in person, the less likely that face-to-face meeting is to result in an ongoing relationship of a friendly or professional nature. If the discrepancy between virtual and real identities is glaring enough, the user in question will be perceived as having deliberately misrepresented themselves -- not a solid foundation upon which to build a new relationship.

Interestingly, the same rules do not necessarily apply to social software that emphasizes the offline interaction/formation of community over the online interaction/formation of community. If the goal of the site is to push interaction between users almost entirely into the real world, as it is with Meetup, then the process of identity construction can be left for the actual meeting between users. If there is minimal user interaction on the site itself, then being held accountable for your actions in the online environment is just not as important. Accountability and the ability to build social capital are once again situated in physical presence.

Nymity and Identity: Friendster
On Friendster, each new user must create a profile containing nickname, gender, what they're interested in meeting people for (dating, serious relationship, friends, activity partner, just there to help), whether they're interested in meeting men, women or both, their relationship status (single/divorced/separated/open marriage), age, and location. Just to begin using the software quite a lot of information is required. Optional fields in the Friendster profile include hometown, occupation, interests, favorite music, favorite books, favorite television shows, favorite movies, a text field to write about yourself, and a text field to write about the type of person you're looking for. Users are also encouraged to post up to five photos of themselves, with an admonition not to upload photos containing children, pets, cartoons, celebrities or other copyrighted images. (A quick glance through the Friendster gallery reveals that many users have decided not to heed the warning.) Pseudonyms are consistent for the duration of site activity and are tied to a given user's profile page.

Further fleshing out a given Friendster user's identity are user testimonials. Testimonials appear message board-style on a given user's profile page. Testimonials can be submitted by any member of a user's personal network and are meant to act as a testament to that user's good qualities and overall friend-worthiness. Each Friendster user, however, has the ability to reject a submitted testimonial. Since testimonials are subject to approval, it seems likely that they will only ever paint the best possible picture of a given user. In addition, the number of testimonials a user has garnered is broadcast to the community at large as part of the profile information that appears whenever a search is executed. As a result, the number of testimonials for a given user is almost more important than what the testimonial itself says (since the approval process almost guarantees it will be something good). Quantity trumps quality. The social pressure inherent in the system for users to write testimonials for one another would seem to dilute their power to convey valuable information over time, as the process becomes a tit-for-tat "you write one for me, I'll write one for you" exchange.

Finally, in theory, identity is further forged on Friendster by who you are friends with. If someone I like and trust considers you a friend, then presumably I can trust and will like you as well. This premise is the fundamental assumption of Friendster's design, as well as its PR campaign. After all, friendship on Friendster is reciprocal; both parties must confirm that they are real life friends. To add another user as a friend, you must provide either their email address, or their full first and last name, and you are prompted in bold red type "Continue only if you really are friends with Alicia." When another user tries to add you as a friend, Friendster makes a point to again print in bold red type "You should approve this request only if you really are friends with Alicia." So, if you say you're friends, you must really be friends. Right? Except that social software shouldn't try to forbid what it can't prevent.

Two of my 15 Friendster friends are actual real life friends of mine. Three are people I had brief email exchanges with over Friendster. Nine are people I go to school with, but don't really know. One is someone from my LiveJournal friend list that I've never met. We weren't trying to game the system; none of us had malicious intent. So why did we all blatantly disregard the "seriously, you must be actual real life friends to click here" warning? Because Friendster isn't fun until you have a big personal network to search through. Friendster's "friend of a friend" design principle is executed in such a restrictive way (you can only see other users you are connected to through friends), it encourages users to invite people, real life friends or not, into the system simply to make their searchable networks larger.[52]

It also encourages users to let other users that may be gaming the system off the hook. The "friendliest person in my network" currently has 295 friends. Do I really think that not only does this person have 295 real life friends, but that he also managed to convince every single one of them to join Friendster? Nope. I can "Flag for Review" him--report him to Friendster admin--as a clear-cut perpetrator of drive-by friending, but I'm not going to. He's a hub. If Friendster admin determines that this user is indeed actively soliciting Friendster friendship, his account will be deleted, and a huge chunk of my personal network will collapse. To report him would be biting off my nose to spite my face. So, live and let live. I know that my friend list is full of people that aren't really my friends, so why should I begrudge this gentleman his friend list? Clearly, while Friendster friend lists are supposed to communicate valuable information about a given user's identity, I think it's fair to say that they often don't.

Nymity and Identity: Ryze
Ryze user pages are akin to personal homepages. While they contain several pre-formatted (but not required) elements, they also afford the user with a great deal of HTML format-able space in which to include any other information the user wishes to share with the Ryze community. Guestbook entries, the Friend list and Ryze Network affiliations are also displayed on a user's profile page. So, Ryze user pages vary wildly in overall tone and content; some are spare and communicate little about the user, others are very in-depth accounts of professional history, still others convey a combination of professional and personal interests and history. Since Ryze user pages display how many hits a given page has gotten, it's easy to see a direct correlation between the amount of information provided on a page and the interest that user generates within the community. So, while none of the Ryze user profile fields are required, to choose not to fill them out would be tantamount to going to a cocktail party and spending the night in the hall closet.

Pre-formatted fields on the Ryze user profile include first name, last name, company, title, interests, location, hometown, universities attended, previous companies and titles held, personal homepage URL, company homepage URL, blog URL and blog RSS URL. "Have," as in "this is what I can offer the community," and "Want," as in "this is what I hope to get out of the community," are also pre-formatted fields. Ryze enables users to upload one photograph of themselves that is posted next to the user's site activity or search results. Photographs can also be uploaded, however, in the HTML format-able section of a Ryzer's profile. Ryzers have used this space to express themselves by posting photographs, artwork, short bios, links to their work on the web, their philosophies of life, their favorite things, and myriad other artifacts.

While every Ryze user chooses a "Ryze Name," the handle with which they log in to the system, site-wide references to Ryzers tend to favor the user's first and last name as indicated on the user's profile page, as opposed to their Ryze Name. In part, this design decision was no doubt implemented to facilitate the business networking that occurs on the site. It's difficult to recognize a name as someone you once worked with if the name is "lacquerdaysaint" as opposed to "Alicia Cervini." An interesting effect of this choice, however, is that users can change their first and last name in their user profile whenever they like. So, while people using the system for legitimate networking have a stake in keeping their name consistent, anyone who is looking to game the system could hide behind name changes. While their Ryze Name would remain consistent, the relatively obscure use of the Ryze Name site wide would not necessarily give them away.

Nymity and Identity: Meetup
User identity on Meetup is the most attenuated. Once registered with the site, by providing an email address and selecting a password, a Meetup user need only create a nickname to sign up for a particular meetup. They are then listed on the "Attendees" page of the event, viewable to all Meetup users. While users who have expressed interest in a particular meetup are given the option to post a "profile" as a way of "introducing" themselves to the other event attendees, they are encouraged by the site copy to "Keep it brief!" Some users post brief messages, others post links to personal pages on the web that provide a great deal of information about themselves, still others forgo the introduction post altogether. There is no consistency from user to user as to what sort of information is provided in the profile post.

Moreover, individual users do not necessarily maintain consistent pseudonymity from meetup to meetup. Users are able to give themselves different nicknames and post alternative introductory messages for each meetup they express interest in. A given user could have as many "identities" on Meetup as meetups they join. Users manage their pseudonyms, introductory posts and meetups from a private Account page hidden from Meetup users at large. Really a given meetup has more of a user profile on Meetup than do the users. Each event features the Who, What, When and Where of the meetup. Each meetup page also conveys: Next Meetup (when and where it is), Profile (where users set their greeting), Tell Friends (where users can invite others to the meetup), Attendees (where attendees interact), Photos (of past meetups about the same topic) and Links (to sites deemed relevant to the meetup in question).

While formation of identity on Meetup itself is exceedingly difficult, it's possible to import identity into Meetup from other social software communities. Meetup's support of user interaction is so spare, many other forms of social software have adopted Meetup as a tool with which to arrange face to face meetings of virtual friends. Consistently, a good percentage of the most popular Meetup topics are groups formed around other types of social software: LiveJournal, Xanga, Weblogger, Slashdot, and so on.[53] Users who have invested time and energy into creating an online identity may want that fact demonstrated for the benefit of the other users attending the meetup. Often, a user expressing interest in a meetup centered around other forms of social software will indicate their pseudonym from the other online community in their introductory post. This practice underscores the "social capital" side of identity: once you've built a good reputation, you want it to travel with you.

Case Study Analysis: Searching and Finding
When searching for an apartment, a job, or a mate in real life the general rule of thumb is to tell as many people as possible that you're looking. Information diffuses through social networks in such a way that you can never be sure where your lucky break is going to come from. The more people you tell, the more likely you are to find what you're looking for. Alternatively, if you're looking for more specialized information, like the best places in New York to take swing dancing lessons for example, you might elect to do a more targeted search of your social network. Rather than telling everyone you meet what you're looking for, you could assess which of your friends and acquaintances might be best able to provide the information you need and limit the scope of your inquiry to save yourself time. Word of mouth information shapes our lives in profound ways.

The premise behind much social software that attempts to turn online interactions into offline relationships is that social software can create a social network with breadth and depth that dwarfs the networks we are able to activate in real-life. Tap into this turbo-boosted network and presumably you can make valuable social connections and find information more efficiently than ever before: word of mouth at warp ten. Friendster and Ryze--"who you know" social software--fall squarely into this category. The breadth afforded by the technology, however, becomes a bug and not a feature if the network isn't searchable. Generate a profusion of weak virtual ties without providing users with the means to winnow through them in a meaningful way and the transaction cost of using the software becomes so high that employing it becomes a burden rather than a boon.

Searching and Finding: Friendster
On Friendster, no matter what kind of search you do you can only find members of your personal network. The Gallery section is where you go to search for a person using any combination of the following statistics: gender, age, location, relationship status and what sort of relationship a user hopes to find on Friendster. So if a user wanted to look at all the men in their personal network that are between the ages of 29 and 38, within 5 miles of Brooklyn, in open marriages, interested in dating, that have uploaded a photo, they would go to the Gallery. Sounds a lot more like how you would look for a date than how you would look for a friend. Although a user certainly could use the Gallery for less salacious sounding searches to locate a friend or activity partner, the search results generated by the Gallery don't provide any additional information about the user other than the number of friends and testimonials they have. So, rather than having to click through to all those user profiles to find one that looks interesting (since people don't usually choose friends and activity partners based on a photo), a different kind of search might be more suitable for those trying to make friends on Friendster.

While it is not possible to search by occupation or hometown, user profile interests and favorites are hyperlinked to one another. So if you have listed "culture jamming" as one of your interests, you can click it in your profile and view any other users in your personal network that have also listed "culture jamming" as an interest. Unfortunately, all the interests and favorites in a Friendster user profile are hyperlinked by default, regardless of whether or not there are any matches, so a user could spend a lot of time dead-ending this way. As an alternative, a user can go to the User Search section and search for specific interests or favorites by typing a search keyword into a blank search field. The page includes a hyperlinked list of the ten most recently performed searches. Search results display any matching users' photo and the complete list of their interests or favorites. Finally, if you want to search for a particular user in your personal network, the User Search section allows you to search by first name only. If you want to search the entire pool of Friendster users for someone you know in real life, you must submit their full name or email address. If you find a real life friend in the system in this manner, you must ask to add them as a friend before you can view their user profile.

The lingering question raised by Friendster's search functionality is whether people actually choose friends because of common interests. While common interests make good conversation starters, are they an effective and efficient way to ascertain whether or not you might want to pursue a friendship with someone? What exactly is going to motivate a Friendster user to take the interaction offline?

Searching and Finding: Ryze
With only a basic membership a Ryzer is mostly equipped to search for groups they're interested in, but not specific people within the system. The Events calendar is fully visible to basic members, although bios of attendees are not. Basic members can also search for a specific Ryze Network by entering a topic in the provided search field. If a user's search turns up nothing, Ryze generates ten randomly selected Networks for the user to peruse. Alternatively, basic members can find Networks by browsing the complete list of Networks, scanning the list of Ryze's 20 biggest Networks, reviewing the list of Ryze's most active Network message boards, or clicking through to a Network from another Ryzer's user page. Basic members are provided with few means for finding individual members, however. Ryze's "Members" section displays the "member rooms"--photo, name, title, company, interests--of 30 randomly selected users. Refresh and 30 new randomly chosen rooms are dynamically generated and displayed. Ryze's "Find People" functionality only enables basic users to search Ryze members (and even their own Contact list) by first name. All other individual Ryzers can only be found through peripatetic navigation of the site: by following the hyperlinked friend lists and guestbook entries on user pages or by following hyperlinked user names on Network BBSs and Event pages.

In a business networking system where a large part of the utility of the software lies in a user's ability to find specific people within a vast social network, membership has its privileges but Gold membership has more and better privileges. And Ryze makes sure you know it; upon upgrading, all advanced functionality is punctuated with "As a Gold member, you get access to this!" First, Gold members are provided with more robust group search functionality. In addition to the means of searching detailed above, Gold members can scan through mini-bios of the newest Ryze members in a one page summary, as well as the mini-bios of Event attendees (in order to determine ahead of time who will be most fruitful to mingle with). Gold members can also execute a "FriendScan" of the friends of their friends.[54] The functionality that enables Gold members to pinpoint specific Ryzers within the system, however, is the most exciting. Advanced search functionality entitles Gold members to search the Ryze user base using any combination of the pre-formatted user profile fields: First Name, Last Name, Company, Industry, Interests, University, Home City, Home State, Home Country and Gender. This degree of specificity enables a user to search for specific types of people, as well as specific individuals they may have worked with before or know in real life. In addition, Gold members are bestowed with "Pivot Capability," which means all green hyperlinked elements on user pages can be followed and generate search results pages.

Provided you are a Gold member, Ryze search functionality is robust. It allows for both targeted searching and serendipitous finding. It facilitates the discovery of both individuals and groups that may be of interest. It provides search parameters along multiple axes.

Searching and Finding: Meetup
Though Meetup features the five most recent user memberships on the homepage, Meetup is event-centric, as opposed to user-centric and searches can only be completed on topics or cities, not users. A user can submit a search for a specific topic or browse all Meetup topics by type. Meetup topics are grouped into nineteen categories: Automotive, Books, Cultures & Community, Education, Entertainment, Financial, Games, Health, Hobbies, In The Market For, Internet & Technology, Languages, Music, Pets, Politics & Activism, Religion, Science, Sports, Work & Career. If a user can't find the meetup topic they're looking for, they can submit a topic suggestion to the site. Users can also browse meetups by city. If someone living in Augusta, Georgia wanted to know what kind of meetups were happening in her town, she could find Augusta in the city list and view the ten most popular meetup topics in Augusta, as well as ten potential upcoming meetups in Augusta. She could also view the complete list of ranked meetups in Augusta (currently there are 144, with Witches drawing 22 members and Drummers drawing only 1), as well as the complete list of upcoming meetups. If a user can't find the city they live in or a city near them by zip code, they can submit the name of their city to Meetup for consideration as a future meetup location.

For users who aren't sure what they're looking for, Meetup also highlights meetup topics site wide in such a way as to foster serendipity. Meetup's homepage presents a list of Featured Meetups, as well as ten Upcoming Meetups from around the world. The Meetup Stats page reveals lists of Top Topics (#1: Dean in 2004), Top Cities (#1: New York City), Top Topics in the Last 7 Days, Top Cities in the Last 7 Days, Fastest Growing Topics (#1: My Dear Diary), and Fastest Growing Cities (#1: Mubai, India). Finally, Meetup does a little collaborative filtering as well. On every meetup page, users can view a dynamically generated list of ten other meetup topics popular with members of that particular meetup. So, as it turns out, people (in the aggregate) who like Dumpster Diving also have a penchant for Boggle, the Eighties, Feng Shui, Financial Chaos and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Who knew?

Overall, it is easier to find a topic of interest than a person of interest, so Meetup has a much less daunting task than either Friendster or Ryze when it comes to making their site searchable in an effective and meaningful way. Topics, after all, have one dimension whereas people have many. Nevertheless, Meetup does an excellent job of making their site searchable. The functionality Meetup provides for finding and selecting a meetup to join makes the process feel a lot like browsing a bookstore. Sometimes you know exactly what you want, sometimes you ask the bookseller for a recommendation, sometimes you choose a bestseller, and sometimes you just pick something off the shelf because it looks good.

Case Study Analysis: Privacy
As the number of ways in which a user can be found increases, so too does the user's need to establish boundaries and seek refuge in privacy. In the physical world, we can go behind closed doors if we want to be alone, we can whisper if we want only selected individuals to hear us, or we can shout if we're addressing an audience. In short, we can control, to a very large degree, who hears us say what. Furthermore, we can choose who we wish to be an audience to. We can step out of earshot, ignore or talk over people we don't want to listen to. Privacy exists on a spectrum. It is a matter of degree; it is not binary. This nuanced control over who witnesses our social activity and whose social advances we wish to be a party to is a fundamental aspect of interpersonal relations. As Jeffrey Rosen writes in The Unwanted Gaze: "...although social norms of accessibility vary widely according to culture and context, people have a general expectation that they won't be molested by social overtures to which they haven't explicitly or implicitly given consent." [55]

Furthermore, the ability to control whether online activities and interactions are public, private or secret is an especially important consideration for social software designers that hope to turn online interactions into offline relationships. Reality television notwithstanding, friendships are not formed in front of an audience. Throw a spotlight on the intricate process of cultivating a nascent friendship and the relationship is likely to wither and die on the vine. Rosen goes on to say: "In order to flourish, the intimate relationships on which true knowledge of another person depends need space as well as time: sanctuaries from the gaze of the crowd in which slow mutual self-disclosure is possible."[56] Social software that supports asynchronous communication enables users to tessellate time according to their whims, but it also needs to be sure to provide the space in which private interactions can occur if it hopes to seed meaningful relationships both virtual and real.

Privacy: Friendster
The majority of user to user communication on Friendster takes place via Private Message. Private Messages are an asynchronous mode of communication accessed through the Friendster interface and stored on Friendster's servers. Users elect to be notified via email when they have received a Friendster Private Message. Messages waiting to be read are stored in the user's Friendster in-box. Similar in style and functionality to email, Private Messages can only be viewed by the recipient. Once a user has sent a Private Message there is no way to get it back or delete it. There is also no way to block another user from sending you Private Messages. While you can delete Friends from your friend list (Friends are not notified when they are dropped), you cannot specify a member of your personal network to be deleted or blocked. If a user is being harassed via Private Messages, her only recourse is to flag the offending user for review by Friendster admin.

There are three types of social interaction possible on Friendster that may involve more than two users: "Ask for an Introduction," "Suggest a Match" and "Forward to a Friend." If you spy a Friendster user that you'd like to meet, but feel hesitant to contact a stranger directly, you can ask any of the middlemen on the network path between you to broker the virtual meeting by introducing you to the mysterious stranger. Only the parties involved in the introduction are privy to the proceedings. On the other hand, if you spy a Friendster user that you think deserves to meet that special someone, you can suggest a match between that user and any of your Friends, or any member of your personal network that you've saved in your Bookmarks. Nobody knows that a match has been suggested other than the three of you, and once the suggestion has been made, the matchmaking user is out of the communication loop. Finally, a link to a given user's profile can be forwarded to another Friendster member, or even a real life friend who is not a Friendster user, with only the sender and recipients knowing that the action has taken place. The user whose profile is being forwarded is not informed. There does not appear to be any limit to how many people can receive the forward. Any of these social overtures can be ignored, but none of them can be blocked.

Bookmarks can be used as a subtle means of user to user communication. When a Friendster user elects to add someone to their Bookmark page, she has the choice to let that action be made visible to the person being bookmarked or not. Bookmarks are not visible to the Friendster user base at large. However, each user can see who has bookmarked them (provided the bookmarker has made the action visible as opposed to hidden), as well as the list of people they have bookmarked (and whether or not they chose to make the bookmark hidden or visible) on their Bookmarks page. There is no way to block another user from bookmarking you.

All other social interactions on Friendster are made public to the edge of your personal network. Testimonials are visible to all members of your personal network (often the Testimonial section is treated more like a dialogue with users posting responses on their own Testimonial board), as are any messages posted to the main Friendster BBS. A strange and somewhat jarring effect of the "only to the edge of your personal network" rule, is that often message board replies are visible, but the originating post is not. When this occurs, the respondent is a member of your personal network, but the original poster is too many hops away to be in your personal network. Likewise, you can see all the friends of someone at the edge of your network, but you will not be able to click through to their profiles if they are more than four degrees away from you. This tantalizing hint of activity you can't fully see is a somewhat undesirable form of privacy on the site, and is yet another way in which Friendster's design promotes aggressive personal network building.

Privacy: Ryze
Events on Ryze can be listed as public and published to the Events Calendar, or listed as private and sent only to invitees via email. Ryze also features a public chat room, although it does not seem to be functionality favored by Ryzers as I have yet to enter the chat room to find another Ryzer present. Network message boards are visible to the community at large, not just Network members, in part to help users decide if they want to join a given Network. Emails advising users of Network events sent by the Network administrator, however, are only sent to Network members, and only if the Network member has agreed to receive them. While interacting on a Network message board, a user can elect at any time to respond to a given poster via Private Message rather than posting to the board. Private Messages on Ryze function much the same way as Private Messages on Friendster. Only the sender and recipient are privy to Private Message communication; Ryze notifies users via email when they have received a message; messages received and sent are archived; specific users cannot be blocked from sending a Private Message. Gold members, on the other hand, can set their preferences so that only other Gold members may send them Private Messages or post in their Guestbook.

While basic members cannot control who posts in their Guestbook, they can control whether or not the Guestbook entries are visible on their user page on a post by post basis. In addition, users who post a message in another Ryzer's Guestbook can elect at any time to hide what they've written, so that only the owner of the Guestbook will be able to read it. If you realize two days later that you've posted something regrettable in someone's Guestbook, you can still go back and hide it from the Ryze population at large; the owner of the Guestbook cannot override the hidden setting. Users also have the ability to release their contact information piecemeal on a user by user basis. While visiting another user page, checkboxes are provided to indicate what personal contact information, if any, you would be willing to release to that user should they ever decide to add you as a Contact. In the event that a user does add you as a Contact, Ryze notifies you via email to allow you to release more personal contact information if you wish. Finally, users can allow spiders and search engines to crawl their user page or not.

Privacy is a particularly important issue for business networking software like Ryze. Since real life jobs and professional reputations could be at stake during Ryze interactions, it is vitally important that users be able to communicate in a discreet manner. Furthermore, in order to facilitate real life networking, users provide a great deal of personal and historical information about themselves. If users were not able to control access to this information in a nuanced way they could easily become victims of users gaming the system. If that were the case, it seems likely that either users wouldn't share personal information at all, which would make using the software somewhat pointless, or else users wouldn't use the software period. Fortunately, Ryze supports a good balance of public and private communication and allows users to mete out their contact information on a user by user basis.

Privacy: Meetup
Because the only form of user to user interaction on Meetup is the small threaded BBS on each meetup page, there are no degrees of privacy for user interaction. The meetup message boards are visible to all Meetup users, though only meetup attendees have posting privileges. Meetups themselves are also very much public events, with photos from the meetup available for viewing on the site wherever applicable. Because Meetup pushes user interaction to the physical realm as quickly as possible, the lack of privacy on the site does not have a negative impact on user experience. If there are new friends to be made through Meetup, they'll be made at the meetup, not on the website.

Case Study Analysis: Social Memory
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that brain size correlates to optimal social group size in primates. Managing the complexity of a social group takes brainpower. The larger the brain, the larger a social group the species can handle. While a group of 20 might not seem like too much to manage, to "know" the other members of the group you must be able to keep track of 190 two-way relationships.[57] This takes us back to Metcalfe's Law: While the number of members in a group increases linearly, the number of potential connections increases quadratically. So, small increases in group size result in significant increases in social complexity, and managing that complexity takes significant processing power on the part of individual group members. Dunbar, who devised a formula for determining a species' maximum group size based on the size of the neocortex in relation to the rest of the brain, determined that humans can handle approximately 150 personal relationships before they reach critical social mass. [58]

So why does this matter to social software designers attempting to leverage online interactions into real life relationships? If we can only remember so many contexts for so many people with so many connections and interpersonal relationships, how can social software expand our social circles? In theory, social software can take us well beyond our 150 relationship maximum in the form of virtual ties -- by minding the context on our behalf. If the software archives interactions, makes friend relationships explicit and maintains a database of salient information about users, it is, in effect, doing all that social group processing work for us. Granted, once two users take a newly forged relationship out of the virtual realm and into the real, they are once again on their own in terms of making sense of their social circle. However, social software designed with a user-accessible memory still avails us of a pool of social possibilities that we would never have been able to retain on our own.

Social Memory: Friendster
While Friend lists and Bookmarks are means of keeping track of your Friendster friends and users of interest, neither list supports any means of differentiation for the collection of users contained therein. Since there is no way for a user to sort, categorize or annotate their Friends and Bookmarks, a user with Friends or Bookmarks in the double or triple digits might have a difficult time making sense of the users represented there. Why did I find this person interesting? Why did I think it was a good idea to add them as a friend? Did I find them or did they find me? What did we talk about? Because user profiles are accessible for as long as a user is part of the system, and a few forms of user-to-user communication are archived, some of these answers can be found, but not without a good deal of sifting through the site.

All Friendster Private Messages sent and received are archived in a user's in-box. Messages can be deleted at any time. To help make sense of accumulating in-box messages, the sender's user photo is displayed next to the message they've sent, but in-boxes cannot be sorted or reorganized; Private Messages are simply archived in the order they were received. The Friendster BBS archives the last 1000 posts, but this often represents a time span of only two days. In addition, since everyone in your personal network uses the BBS, it can represent a pool of thousands of users, most of whom you will never have directly interacted with. Friendster social gestures such as asking for an introduction, suggesting a match and forwarding user profiles to friends are not archived within the system. All possible network paths to another user are made explicit and are always accessible within the system, but the paths change as the structure of the network changes. A path that was available yesterday might not be available today and the system retains no memory of the defunct path. If I delete my Friendster account, I vanish from the system quietly and completely as if I were never there.

So, while Friendster has a social memory in that it saves and displays user profiles and testimonials, it is not so good at making the nature of user relationships and the history of user interactions explicit within the system, which is a big part of making sense of social complexity.

Social Memory: Ryze
The most sophisticated form of social memory available on Ryze is accessible via the user's Contact Manager. A user can store an unlimited number of Contacts, both Ryze members and non-Ryze members, and the functionality of a Contact page enables users to both categorize and annotate Contact entries. Contact pages include fields for home addresses and phone numbers, work addresses and phone numbers, category, notes, interests, birthday and follow up dates. If the Contact is a Ryze user, interests are automatically imported from their Ryze user page. Contacts can also be downloaded or exported to other forms of software or viewed as a graph demonstrating the growth of a user's Contact list on a month by month basis. Making Ryze Contacts more accessible still, Contacts are searchable by as many fields as a user's membership level gives them access to.

Though robust in and of itself, a user's Contact list is far from the only form of social memory available to Ryzers. Network message board posts, Guestbook entries and Private Messages are all archived. Moreover, Ryze's approach to archiving Private Messages is much more useful than Friendster's approach. Ryze Private messages are also archived by the date they're received, but click on a particular one and every message ever received from or sent by that user will be displayed underneath, along with a list of that user's friends. Archiving Private Messages in this way provides users with a richer context in which to place a Ryzer they've communicated with in the past. Ryze members can also manage the Networks they belong to and the type of communications they wish to receive from Network leaders on the Network Memberships page. Ryzers can build Friend lists, as well as view a list of everyone who lists them as a friend. Finally, Event coverage of Ryze Events features photographs taken at the event that can be downloaded or even purchased as prints.

A particularly interesting aspect of Ryze's social memory is that Ryze requires nonexclusive ongoing rights (though not copyright) to all user-submitted materials. This unusual policy is explained as follows: "Once material is posted to the site it becomes an important part of the continuity of the site and the network of information. Think of the service more as a database of interconnected information than as a web page service."[59] The history of a user's interaction and activity on Ryze may have value to the community whether or not the user is still a member of the system. Because Ryze saves the record of their interactions, if Ryzers elect to leave the system, the relationships forged on Ryze or at Ryze Events are not left broken. Ryze functionality provides many simple ways to manage social complexity.

Social Memory: Meetup
An event-centric environment, Meetup retains information about meetup topic and city trends overall, however once the date of a particular scheduled meetup passes, the focus turns to the next scheduled meetup for that topic. As long as a user remains on the Attendees list of a meetup, their profile message will roll over from meetup to meetup for that topic (though the user can change it at any time). Messages posted to the topic BBS also roll over from meetup date to meetup date. If meetups have been held successfully, attendees are encouraged to submit photos of the event. Meetups are memorialized in both the "Photos" section, where photos from any city that held a meetup for that topic on that date can be viewed (if applicable), and the "Next Meetup" section, where quotes from meetup attendees are featured. Meetup's social memory is more akin to a scrapbook than a Rolodex.

Since the majority of user-to-user interaction occurs at the meetup itself, any friends or acquaintances made through Meetup must be managed the old-fashioned way. Although Meetup users are provided with an Account page that helps them to manage the meetup topics they've expressed interest in, Meetup does not archive information about users that would enable people to manage relationships forged as a result of meetup participation.

Case Study Analysis: Governance
We have learned, through time and experience, that virtual communities are not utopian communes impervious to the effects of real world skullduggery. Sadly, as it is in real life, so shall it be in the virtual: Charlatans, hucksters, and ne'er-do-wells tread among us. A group's first line of defense against social malignancy is the set of social norms established and practiced by the productive members of the group. A breach of social norms will often incite a group movement to quell the improper behavior.[60] Free riders and users looking to game the system, however, can be harder to stymie organically because these users often rely on the setting of social norms to shape the nature of their actions. After all, you can't game a system until you know what the rules are.

So, social norms do part of the job, but governance has to make up the difference. Francis Fukuyama, in his book Trust, explains why social norms alone are not enough:
"Hierarchies are necessary because not all people within a community can be relied upon to live by tacit ethical rules alone. A small number may be actively asocial, seeking to undermine or exploit the group through fraud or simple mischievousness. A much larger number will tend to be free riders, willing to benefit from membership in the group while contributing as little as possible to the common cause. Hierarchies are necessary because all people cannot be trusted at all times to live by internalized ethical rules and do their fair share. They must ultimately be coerced by explicit rules and sanctions in the event they do not live up to them." [61]

Governance plays a crucial role in the creation and maintenance of healthy online communities, and the stakes are even higher for social software that seeks to export virtual relationships to the real world. Virtual breaches of social norms could potentially have real world consequences.

Governance: Friendster
Friendster users can report abuse via the "Flag for Review" link featured prominently on every user page. Friendster reserves the right to remove any posted material or terminate the account of any member in violation of the Terms of Service. Friendster expressly forbids the inclusion of any personally identifiable information, such as phone numbers, addresses, last names, URLs or email addresses, in public areas of the site and reserves the right to remove any such information.

Governance: Ryze
Ryze users can report abuse via the "Flag for Admin" link that appears on every user page. Ryze reserves the right to remove any posted material or terminate the account of any member in violation of the Terms of Service. The most common form of abuse on Ryze is spam. To thwart spammers, Ryze recommends that Ryzers never post their email addresses in public venues, such as message boards or Guestbooks, but has also implemented several forms of pre-emptive functionality. Basic members can only post 25 Guestbook entries within a 24-hour period (Gold members are currently beta testing a higher Guestbook limit). Complete lists of Network members are available only to Network leaders. The Contact Manager enables users to exchange and maintain records of personal information privately.

Governance: Meetup
Meetup users can report abuse via the Help page, or by following the "Report Abuse Here" link at the bottom of every meetup Attendees list. Meetup reserves the right to suspend or terminate the account of any user found to be violating the Terms of Service. Because meetups are not supervised by Meetup representatives, Meetup administration relinquishes all responsibility for anything that might occur during or on the way to a meetup. However, to help make these face-to-face interactions safer, meetup venues are always public places, and meetups with fewer than five confirmed attendees are cancelled. A current problem that remains unresolved by Meetup administration is when users RSVP in the affirmative to a meetup, but then do not actually attend.

Directed Searching: Working the Network >>>

[45] Jessica Hammer, email correspondence with author, 14 April 2003.

[46] Richard J. Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002),100.

[47] While a maximum hopcount is not indicated anywhere on the Friendster site, empirical evidence points to a maximum hop count of four.

[48] "Ryze FAQ," ( (31 March 2003).

[49] "About Ryze," ( (31 March 2003).

[50] "Adrian Scott's Guestbook," ( (31 March 2003).

[51] Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances,105-106.

[52] When I began studying Friendster in March, adding a friend did not require inputting a full name or email address. Clearly, Friendster is trying to ensure that Friendster friends are genuinely real life friends to have implemented this functionality. Equally clearly, there have been abuses of the system for Friendster admin to have thought this was a necessary change. Despite making it slightly harder to add people that are not real life friends, it's a measure that is still quite easy to get around, particularly when the pressure to grow your personal network is such a part of the Friendster experience.

[53] "Meetup Stats," ( (21 April 2003).

[54] Ryze used to feature FriendScan level I (friends of friends) for Silver members and FriendScan level II (friends of friends of friends) for Gold members. FriendScan level II has recently vanished as available functionality. It would be interesting to know if Ryze elected to do away with FriendScan level II because it was technologically unfeasible or socially impractical and undesirable. I'm guessing the latter.

[55] Jeffrey Rosen, The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, (New York: Knopf, 2001), 17.

[56] Ibid., 8.

[57] Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, 177-179.

[58] Ibid., 179.

[59] "Ryze FAQ," ( (31 March 2003).

[60] Berg and Smith, Paradoxes of Group Life, 60.

[61] Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 25.

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