Study shows similarities between Facebook and real-world communities

I was intrigued by an article last week on Mashable titled “Facebook builds stronger bonds than Twitter.”  The post went on to summarize a finding from an article by post-doctoral fellow Emilio Ferrara entitled, “A large-scale community structure analysis in Facebook.”

Facebook connection requires mutual consent and Twitter allows for non-consensual connections (Ferrera terms Twitter connections “hierarchical relationships”).  In this context, Mashable’s write-up of the study probably surprised few who are familiar with both networks.  So I wondered why this insight is important?  It turns out it’s not.

But there is a far more valuable takeaway from the paper, particular for people interested in the mechanism and future of Facebook.

I couldn’t help but notice the name of the study

God bless Mashable, but I’ll state the obvious: their article is about an off-hand observation from a study that is entirely about Facebook.  The author is a researcher for the University of Indiana’s Truthy tool, which analyzes Twitter content.  He was identifying a difference between the two networks, not making a judgment about either.  That Facebook and Twitter have different dynamics is not news.

The actual takeaway from his study is far more useful.  What Ferrara finds is that our Facebook communities are organized similar to real-world social networks.  Our amalgamated Facebook network is not one cohesive community, but a collection of smaller communities.  So, the purpose of Ferrara’s study was to determine the characteristics of Facebook’s “mesoscopic” community, and his findings could be pretty important to businesses on Facebook and to Facebook itself (“meso” = middle, between microscopic and macroscopic).

The study observes that “small world theory” (commonly known as “six degrees of separation”) is seen on Facebook as it is in real life (for the most part).  This is important because as social networks expand on Facebook, the dynamics of smaller communities appear to remain (otherwise the “degrees of separation” would decrease).

So what?

Ferrara frequently discusses Mark Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” theory, and this is good news from that perspective.  As friends per user increases, presumably there is increased opportunity to influence friends of friends through a social networking site.  The problem is that Facebook hasn’t demonstrated the overt capability to do this yet.  But by understanding the dynamic of these communities, it seems plausible that Facebook could leverage weak ties better.

If another study is accurate this is also pretty scary news for the future of Facebook.  A few weeks ago I wrote about a study suggesting that an increased number of social circles causes increased distress for Facebook users.  Apparently users don’t want their parents and grandparents to see their Snapchat screen grabs.  If Facebook communities are as small as Ferrara proposes, then user distress would increase proportional to friend count.  Since Facebook needs you to add friends, this is a problem where a filter or flight response will inevitably occur, and for any social network flight is the easiest response.  Flight to Myspace, Path, Pheed, Google Plus: anywhere that a segregated community can have an unobstructed conversation.

What platforms, marketers and parents need to understand is that friend count may be irrelevant to social networking.  The value of social networks may be in the small communities that constitute that friend count.  And the smaller online communities are, the more portable they are.

What do you think?  What does it mean for marketers or users to understand that our huge Facebook networks are actually a bunch of small tribes?  Is fragmentation from Facebook more plausible based upon this model of FB’s community?

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • Gurmeetsingh Mehtab

    Facebook groups have not worked as well as thought. Infact from being a FB addict, ive found Twitter more to my liking. The sharing is much more specific out there. Less time waste. More value.

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Gurmeetsingh! I’m reading your comment and reflecting on Linsay Bell’s post on Spin Sucks stating a preference towards Facebook ( and it seems to me that there are so many different reasons to use social media that its fragmentation becomes a barrier. Great insight (for the record I prefer the economy of Twitter, too). Cheers!

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