Tracking the digital traces of social networks

February 14, 2009

Why do we create and maintain social networks? Most people can immediately think of a few natural reasons -- we get something from the interaction, or the person is nearby and is close to us in proximity, age or gender.

But researching such theories on a large scale has never before been possible -- until digital social networks came along.

Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, has studied the massive online virtual world Second Life to test whether these and other social theories are true.

Contractor will discuss his results in a presentation titled "Digital Traces: An Exploratorium for Understanding and Enabling Social Networks," which will be part of the "Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Large-Scale Human Networks" symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Second Life, where more than 15 million accounts are registered, differs from other massive online multiple-player games in that there is no real goal -- people create virtual avatars of themselves and then chat with other people, and buy and sell items.

But in order to make it safe for minors, Second Life created Teen Grid, where only teenage players can socialize. But how successful could such a world be? Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life, contacted Contractor and his collaborators to find out.

"Among other questions, they wanted to learn how networks might help identify potential troublemakers within that context," Contractor says. In return, Contractor and his colleagues got access to huge amounts of data that give them a way to answer how the networks were created.

"We wanted to ask basic questions about communication theory -- to what extent are people joining groups because their friends are part of the group? To what extent are they becoming friends with people in the groups they've joined? We don't have good ways of tracking that in the real world."

So searching through vast amounts of anonymized data, Contractor and his collaborators found that teens had online friendships that were disproportionately with people in their immediate geographic area -- likely with people they already knew.

"That finding really went against a lot of the media hype," Contractor said. "People were worried about helpless teenagers talking with strangers, but that is not what we found. This is the first time this has been based on solid evidence."

Teenagers also tended to be friends with the friends of their friends, not with people who weren't part of their network already, the researchers found.

When teenagers turn 20, they must leave the Teen Grid of Second Life and go on to the regular Second Life, leaving their entire network of friends behind.

"This provides a nice natural experiment to see the transition of being suddenly severed from one network and being introduced to another," Contractor says.

Contractor continues to research virtual worlds like Second Life and hopes to continue testing these social theories.

"What we've found so far is that technology isn't changing our networks -- it's reinforcing them," he says.

Source: Northwestern University

Explore further: Could Twitter stop the next terrorist attack?

Related Stories

Could Twitter stop the next terrorist attack?

July 24, 2015

Social media giants including Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook and Google are pushing back against Senate legislation that would require them to alert federal authorities of any terrorist activity, according to industry and government ...

Changing the way we think about urban infrastructure

July 22, 2015

In the early morning of Sept. 8, 2014, rain began to fall across the Phoenix metro area. It showed no signs of stopping during the morning commute, and soon lakes were forming on streets and freeways. Drivers scrambled from ...

Turkey briefly blocks access to Twitter over bombing images

July 22, 2015

Turkey briefly blocked access to Twitter on Wednesday to prevent images of Monday's deadly bombing from being broadcast and to stop Twitter users from calling for protests against the government, which they blamed for not ...

Flexible engineering design for infrastructure projects

July 21, 2015

For nearly 50 years, Richard de Neufville has been working on ways to plan, analyze and design complex engineering systems. A civil engineer by background, de Neufville's latest research focuses on a major paradigm shift ...

Recommended for you

French teen finds 560,000 year-old tooth (Update)

July 28, 2015

A 16-year-old French volunteer archaeologist has found an adult tooth dating back around 560,000 years in southwestern France, in what researchers hailed as a "major discovery" Tuesday.

Oldest known Koran text fragments discovered

July 23, 2015

Two pages of text written on parchment that are believed to be sections of the Koran (Chapters 18 and 20) have been discovered by a PhD student in a British university library and are believed to be the oldest ever found. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.