What’s a “social network”?

Posted: June 17, 2010 in Social Networks, The Internet

For a range of reasons, the question has come up around here of what defines a social network. Wikipedia gives this broad statement (which i have slightly edited for length):

A social network is a social structure made of individuals which are connected by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

I think that’s pretty good, but I thought i could add to it. To me, a social network at its core is a system that functions on the principles of a “network effect” — that is: as more people join the network, increasing value is conferred to the members. In other words, a social network has no value for one member, and has a lot more value for two… and as the number increases, the value increases faster. That’s a network effect. No network effect and it’s not a social network.

I thought at first that the activity of “sharing” information between an individual and others might be a defining attribute of a social network. I think that you might need to utilize a social network to share information (phone, email, etc.) but I no longer believe this is meaningful as a defining attribute. I can share a post from my blog, but my blog is not a social network.

No, I think that the foundation of a network effect is what defines a network, and the “social” part distinguishes the network as one for socializing, for meeting and connecting to people. As we spend our days building features and defining what PlaceBook is, we continue to find it useful to understand what we are not: we’re not a social network. We are enormously useful for one member, or millions. We are a safe and comprehensive service to manage your location information, and give it back to you with simple tools and powerful applications.

You’re right: it will be better when we can just show you…

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