The multiplicity of human relations, and how online social networks don’t support that

The following came up during Bernie Hogan’s talk at the WebSci summer school. I touch on other aspects of the talk here, but this topic deserves a post of its own.

This got a touch long: there’s a summary paragraph at the bottom if you’re in a hurry!

How we (don’t) understand our own networks

Hogan reports that when people are asked about clusters in their online networks, they are very able to articulate them — for instance, “friends from Oxford”, “colleagues from my last job”, “university buddies”. However, they find it very, very hard to see how those clusters overlap, imagining that they are non-overlapping worlds when that is not true.

Interesting issues arise from this: how do we present ourselves to networks which contain multiple clusters? If we present to the “lowest common denominator” (the people we trust the least), we rapidly find that all we can really share are baby and holiday photos (not even those if we’re pulling a sickie!). (This paper elaborates.)

So, we can’t share sensitive information with our networks… except we do, don’t we?

And we often just post publicly, not realising (or caring about) the visibility of our updates — not realising (or caring) that they are persistent and linked. For instance, here are searches of Twitter and Facebook for updates with the words “I hate my boss.”

We lose context in online spaces

One tweet during Hogan’s talk remarked “sometimes it’s valid to have multiple social identities, which we don’t want to disclose.”

I disagree: it’s always valid to have multiple social identities (and why shouldn’t they be private?). It’s what it means to be human: no one presents the same behaviour to their parents, their colleagues, their buddies and their kids.

We have no good mechanisms for managing our clusters of contacts... running to new, sparsely populated networks doesn't count!

This is a problem on Facebook, of course: you are ‘friends’ with people from multiple arenas, so how do you handle it? Some attendees described deleting their Facebook accounts because the overhead of handling different clusters of people was just too high.

So, we have issues with broadcasting inappropriate information. The flip side of the problem is receiving it: we see baby pictures from work colleagues, updates about wild nights out from family members, meaningless work-related statuses from friends. Privacy is about more than keeping secrets, it’s about managing information and making it contextually appropriate.

Restoring our context online (I don’t see a lot)

Google+ begins to try and address this with Circles (see my initial impressions), but I’m unconvinced Circles will work. We have many, many people in our networks: aside from the fact that human relationships cannot be easily dropped into buckets, people often aren’t good at categorisation, and maintaining Circles will be a real pain. (A partial solution would be to let people create publicly-available Circles, for example a “WebSci summer school” circle… that would help, but I don’t know if it would be enough.)

Google+ tells us which circles we’re posting to, but Hogan thinks it isn’t made crystal clear. Offline, of course, we have a wealth of cues for understanding our current context. Still, as mentioned by Marc Smith, things are changing: the role of ‘speaker’ and ‘audience’ is crystal clear during talks at this summer school, but the talks are broadcast online, tweeted and blogged. How well do we adjust to that?

In summary

So, we struggle to understand our own social networks, and we fail to share appropriate information with clusters within those networks. People are talking about the problem, and social network providers are attempting to respond… but the people who’re talking are an academic/technical minority, and the responses are very ‘engineered’, failing to acknowledge the complexity of human relations. I don’t have any silver bullets, but this is a tough problem and I think we need to work together as a community — academics and industry, sociologists and engineers — to address this.

Will we see progress in the area come WebSci’12? I hope so.


14 responses to this post.

  1. The “sometimes” was meant to draw in the naysayers. 🙂


  2. […] Copyright ‘n’ legal « The multiplicity of human relations, and how online social networks don’t support that […]


  3. hm, I’ve been thinking about my network of relationships in a slightly different way while travelling.

    I’m still working on forming a blurry mental image into words, but

    I might say that my list of facebook friends is a list of people with whom I would like to stay in touch … the main function of facebook for me is to provide a means of contacting people when I want to do some catching up.


    • Facebook as an address book? Yeah, I see that. It’s very powerful as such a tool — both for people for whom you lack an email address, and people for whom you have too many / suspect the details may be outdated. I’m sure FB would be very happy if we answer the question of “Which email address should I use?” with “Eh, I’ll just Facebook message them…”


      • I thought after posting this though that if everyone used facebook the way I do, it wouldn’t work at all…

      • It’s not just the same as an address book, though…

        To *me* it provides a more casual means of interaction between meeting someone and becoming friends with them.

        I guess… my sister wikll meet someone on Monday and by Tuesday they’ll know if they’re soulmates. So they’ll exchange emails/phone numbers, or not. But I’ll meet someone on Monday and by next Monday they still won’t really know me at all. So I’ll add them on facebook, which doesn’t help a great deal in the getting to know (usually), but then they’ll mention they’re in town and we’ll meet for coffee and son the process continues.

        Or not, of course, and because I keep my facebook page quite tidy, if it’s been a while I don’t really expect to meet again, I’ll probably remove them.

        Oh, I had another thought, on the subject of circles. Suppose I took all your facebook data – in particular, all the comments you’ve ever posted, and all the posts you’ve ever made. Suppose I fed that information to some kind of pattern-finder. Could I deduce something about your circles? For example, if you posted ‘I’m in Southampton, who wants to meet up?’, the people who would reply would be Southampton folks. If you posted a websi link, the people who commented on that would be websci folks. The people wgho never commented might be ‘people I don’t know very well, why are they on here anyway?’. The people who made lots of comments on your photos might be ‘procrastinating – are they PhD students?’. Obviously (?) an auto-whatsit wouuldn’t do quite that kind of analysis, but it might come up with some clusters.

        A new person could have a cluster suggested based on their friends… In fact all that stuff about deducing things about you from your friends? That could be used to cluster your friends, too.

        So. The next step for circles is to use whatever information google can find to suggest circles for your friends.


        Here’s another thought. What if you could make your circles public, and *I* could decide which or your circles I wanted to follow. Perhaps some public (‘websci’) and some not (‘me-and-ali’).

        Dude. Google should hire me.

    • (Replying to earlier comment as the final one doesn’t have a ‘reply’ button. Odd!)

      Cool! Ok, that’s a nice of use FB. Though like you said earlier, if everyone used FB like you then the model wouldn’t work, but I see how it works.

      How ‘tidy’ do you keep your FB page? Do you have a maximum number of contacts?

      You could totally do some deduction work based on FB data, as you describe. I wonder what proportion of people leave their data on there wide open still?

      A related article about the (in)security of Circles: (scroll down to ‘A window into your circles’)

      So in summary, no platform is safe, eh!

      Public circles would be helpful in some ways — e.g. a ‘WebSci summer school’ circle that participants could add themselves into.

      Dude. Google /should/ hire you!


      • being camping awake at 3am with cold, i think on…

        I try and keep my facebook contacts below 100, but I wouldn’t say it’s a hard maximum. After all I won’t remove someone unless I don’t think there is really a connection…

        I also try and keep ‘my’ page clean – I used to go and manually delete every comment I’d made from showing on my profile, but I think I’ve managed to get them disabled from showing now.

        I was thinking more about the circles thing and auto-suggesting circles.

        * No one wants to write a one line status update and then have to think about which circles it would go to. Could g+ use defaults/text/people mentioned in circles to suggest circles for each update? Most of the time people would just go with the default because it’s not important enough whether a circle gets an update they didn’t need/misses some comment on your breakfast. so then you pretty much have ‘g+ will show this post to the people it thinks it will interest’ – well isn’t that what facebook tries to do already? (in a fairly clunky way admittedly)

        * When people talk about why circles/privacy they typically talk about photos as being the thing people don’t want to escape… but I haven’t seen much about how the photo viewing/tagging etc works on g+? In theory my best thought was that if Reena puts up a photo of you, then the people who are friends with (in some circle sense….) both you and Reena should be able to see it, and anyone else either of you choose to share it with.

        * But I think that this idea of circles is subject to the flaw that people don’t use technology within the metaphor it’s designed for… this is also why facebook was so whack at first. People will make circles like ‘people who make interesting updates even though i don’t know them well’ and … oh i don’t know what, but i’m sure people’s use of circles will go well beyond the ‘people who might be found in the pub together’ metaphor, and that will cause a problem if circles are then used for sharing purposes.

        I leave my data wide open! I like it to be all or nothing. When I LJd I never posted f’locked either…. just how I like to be.

    • Of curiosity, do you think you’d have carried on with LJ if you’d started f’locking posts?

      I miss having my neighbour on Facebook. I expected I’d miss the far-away people, but I miss the nearby ones too! Hm.


      • Posted by mair on July 22, 2011 at 05:56

        No, I definitely wouldn’t have.

        I guess it makes sense to miss seeing updates from people you are keeping up with really well, in a way.

        Paid for internet, 2 mins left, no more of my thoughts now!

  4. […] I had two minor niggles: firstly, 90 minutes is a very long slot even for speakers of keynote quality. Secondly, I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘talks’ and ‘tutorials’ (I expected the latter to be more interactive, and to include exercises). Overall, however, it it was an extremely well-executed week with a great range of speakers and topics… for instance, see my write-ups of talks from Wendy Hall, Bernie Hogan and Marc Smith, not to mention my rants about data and social networks. […]


  5. ‘Here’s another thought. What if you could make your circles public, and *I* could decide which or your circles I wanted to follow. Perhaps some public (‘websci’) and some not (‘me-and-ali’).

    Dude. Google should hire me.’

    Damn, I was going to suggest public circles/social groups that people could add themselves to. It would be very handy as I might not care about news from your band, or sad writing career, but I might be interested in ‘General Life happenings’


  6. […] that Google+ provides. (I touched on this in some detail a few months ago, when discussing the multiplicity of human relationships.) An enrobed Panos on Head Up […]


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