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The Hidden Networks of Twitter


I am sometimes asked ” What is the point of twitter?” by people who sign up and are bewildered by the flurry of seemingly disconnected “tweets”.  Even Dave Davison, a longtime investor in and enthusiast of media platforms has asked what is the “Return on Attention” with twitter ?

All social networking is not created equal. My usual answer based upon my own usage has been that twitter will make sense for you if you have an established network of people with whom you have a reason to be in frequent contact and a common set of interests. I have that on twitter with a sizable national security/mil/foreign policy/4GW/IC informal “twittersphere”. If you don’t have that kind of network at least in latent form when you sign up on twitter, its going to be very hard to build one from scratch by following strangers based on random tweets.

As it turns out, research has begun to validate my empirical observation. In social networking platforms there is your formal network but inside it is the real, “hidden” network with which you actually interact:

From Complexity Digest – “Social networks that matter: Twitter under the microscope” (PDF) by Bernardo A. Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu

“….This implies the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and followees, and a sparser and simpler network of actual friends. The latter proves to be a more inuential network in driving Twitter usage since users with many actual friends tend to post more updates than users with few actual friends. On the other hand, users with many followers or followees post updates more infrequently than those with few followers or followees.”

What does this mean ? 

First, it means that if the IC or military or law enforcement are worried about terrorists or criminals using twitter or Facebook for nefarious purposes, the bad guys will not be able to conceal their cells amidst a large list of nominal “friends” because their manic activity stands out like neon lights against the passivity of the non-members of the network.

Secondly, I’m not certain if this research scales with “celebrity” figures on a platform with huge numbers of followers like Robert Scoble ( Scobleizer  50, 362) or the designer Guy Kawasaki ( guykawasaki  52, 506). These people are deep influencers well outside any realistic circle of actual friends and are followed in part because of their pre-existing status earned in other domains or media.

That said, it’s an interesting concept to think of social media networks having a surface and a hidden or inner network where the real action takes place and what causes transactional movement to occur between the two.


A related post by Drew – Enabling the Power of Social Networks in the IC

10 Responses to “The Hidden Networks of Twitter”

  1. T. Greer Says:

    Honestly, this does not come as a surprise in the least. I am sure any teenager with a Facebook page could tell you this- the average person will have between 150-300 "friends", but only actively comment on the wall/inbox of 20 or so.  Facebook has taken steps to force you to spread out beyond this group of actual friends (sending updates to "friends" automatically, displaying everybody who is online in the corner, etc.), but the pattern of one layer of ‘actual friends’ and another layer of people you have met sometime, somewhere in your life.

    ~T. Greer, connected.

  2. Valdis Krebs Says:

    Yes, and your friends end up being friends/followers of each other — so natural clusters emerge and are discoverable.  

    With all of the Twitter social data so easily available for analysis, no smart terrorist will use this service

  3. Drew Conway Says:

    The authors are observing the classic ‘core-periphery’ network structure that occurrs in nearly all snowball driven social network data, which as you describe, clearly applies to Twitter.

    The real question is: why does this particular social structure facilitate our lives?

  4. zen Says:

    Hi  T. Greer,
    Occasionally, research backs the intuitive. I’d also say there’s a middle strata where there may be minimal interaction but a higher degree of attention to what is happening on FB pages or in their twitterstream than with thos in the bottom strata of "friends".
    Hi Valdis,
    So, this process of "clustering" would be movement from a state of "weak" to "strong" ties then ?
    Hi Drew,
    It’s facilitation in the same sense that social rituals, long forgotten, served in earlier eras.
    For example, in the later 19th century, in addition to the large volume of correspondence that educated, UMC ppl kept up (mail delivery was 5 x a day in cities) it was expected that you would periodically "make the rounds" and leave your "calling card". Whether the person you were visiting was at home was irrelevant as you left the card with the staff or the oldest child – if they were home you had a short visit with tea or coffee and promptly departed. Men joined a number of fraternal organizations and their wives had their equivalent societies, usually anchored in their church or a eucumenical Christian group if it revolved around reforming some broad social ill.
    That was their email, their webpage, their social networking platform -all in meatspace and/or F2F.

  5. TCHe Says:

    We’re talking about longer-term communication between terrorists and the like, right?What about ad hoc use of Twitter as C2 platform? The feed may be compromised at a certain point, but probably after the whole show is over already.

  6. Mark Says:

    The matter of an ad hoc C2 platform can be turned right around with the begging question: “What can the good guys…all of them, from development workers and first response medical communities to military support units…learn from the social synchronization implied by services such as Twitter and FB.

  7. zen Says:

    Hi TCHe and Mark,
    I think Twitter works very well for "the good guys" who do not ( unless they live in say, Burma or Iran) have to waste time with all kinds of false flag tweeting to disguise their actual intent. Bad guys, like in Mumbai can make sudden use of twitter during events but not for long term discussion of planning criminal or terror ops.

  8. Drew Conway Says:

    I think you are right, but we need some anthropologist to really dig into this.  Are we coded with it in our DNA?  Do we learn it?  What?

     Padgett at U Chicago has made a career on studying the power of ancient social networks, with his seminal work on the rise of the Medici in Italty: https://webshare.uchicago.edu/users/jpadgett/Public/papers/published/robust.pdf

  9. Interessantes woanders (2009.01.27) › Immersion I/O Says:

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