Entrapment!… in Online Social Networks

I have officially become a Facebook junkie.. and stalker too, if you count the amount of times I have clicked on profiles and groups in order to identify patterns and behaviors for my thesis topic. Plus its an incredible time waster getting really distracted by cool stuff i find and not working on my thesis instead, thats the real killer.. I wonder how anyone doing research in this field can really do it without getting hooked eventually..

Maybe its not a good idea after all to write about about the web, cos I am really trapped in it now. =) But i’m luvin’ it. I also realize I am not an academic because all i can think of, while surfing Facebook, are not theoretical concepts but marketing ideas and revenue models.

My thesis topic is “Influence on Online Social Networks”. I am trying to investigate how information diffuses across virtual communities such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Friendster, by understanding individual motivations and also how social structure affects the desire to perform the action of passing along a meme. My goal is to work out a model for designing online marketing campaigns for online social networks. Particularly in the context of viral campaigns like the adidas world cup campaign on myspace that garnered thousands of “friends” within a week..

Such self-organized and organic evangelizing of memes hold massive potential for marketers. Being an avid user myself, I am  trying to think of a mechanism to ride on such trends as a marketer, but I cannot find a scientific way to re-create such viral behavior, much less find literature by academics who offer some insights. There are exceptions of course, Danah Boyd and Fred Stutzman. Which comes back to what I always believe in, only our own generation hold the key to the digital revolution. Online social networks are a slightly different ball game in terms of its sociological profile, they are not “real” and are only the “horizon” too what Fred calls the study of “socio-technical” behavior of web users on such networks. The disengagement of reality in some online interactions might just be turning some of us into cyborgs…

Back to the topic, some friends are asking me what I am writing about exactly. So here’s a draft abstract i crammed out of my confused mind:

In this dissertation, we will examine how ideas gain influence among members on online social networks (OSNs). An online social network is a virtual community of web users and is characterized by its consumer orientation and a platform that enables the creation and maintenance of web identities in addition to interactive features for the purpose of social exchanges between its members.

This computer-mediated form of communication is wildly popular among youths today. OSNs have been lauded for the swift propagation of recent pop culture trends due to the enhanced network effects offered by the internet form of information transmission. By studying the many interest groupings and movements in OSNs, we build a model that allows us to understand the diffusion of information. In particular, we seek to explore how network independent variables such as personality and network-dependent variables such as connectivity, social structure has an impact on the formation, growth and influence of web-based ideas/ memes. We compare the studies of such groups across some of the most popular networks today and attempt to apply these findings to the field of online marketing.

Some questions simmering at the back of my mind:

  1. What causes an idea to spread in online social networks?
  2. What is the “DNA” (genetic structure) of an influential/ viral idea on OSNs?
  3. Is it the presence of “power connectors” or does the topology of a successful viral movement reveal how social structure helps in idea diffusion?

Think about this: why did you join a particular social network? You were not forced to by the company itself, no way. There’s no one who can command you to press a button and fill up a tedious form over the internet. Its your choice. And a conscious choice at that.

You were most likely influenced by your friends, people you trust who had sold you on the benefits of linking up on that network. It could be humor, could be voyeurism, gossip on friends, sharing interests, keeping in touch.. There’s an immense social blanket we wrap around us and an OSN membership might just help provide that extra comfort.

So we establish that a social network membership was obtained due to viral, peer to peer marketing. Most of your friends joined, and hence you join, and you move on to ask others to join. The cycle continues. No external influence, its all intra-community peer pressure plus maybe that self-initiated curiousity and desire.

But membership does not equate active participation. Some people never upload photos, nor leave testimonials, wall writings or update their profile. These activities are important in filtering the active members from the passive ones. Its a volitional/ conscious choice again. These people may just be passive consumers or voyeurs of your updates or they just fail to log on after that intial spike of interest. A social network has no value for any user nor marketer without constant activity. Hence, I postulate on the existence of an “effective social network”, one that creates and communicates social value, or what Malcolm Gladwell might call the mavens, connectors and salesmen.

These connectors are the true engine of a social network which thrives on content and media generated by its own users. They lubricate the entire operations of the network by contributing, publicizing, modifying, “stealing” and criticizing all this social content of their own, of friends or strangers. It is them which spark off “flame wars” or the next meme that will fuel a huge flurry of online activity that makes social network contribution so fun.

The focus of my thesis is on understanding the topology/ social structure of these social sub-networks, (the groups of users who have consciously rallied and engaged in activity around common memes) and the roles and importance of “influencers” (mavens, connectors, salesmen). I will also be attempting to create a link between how the process of meme propagation can be extended for application to consumer marketing campaigns in the form of memes.

It all sounds rather scattered now, lets hear what you can make of it.


6 thoughts on “Entrapment!… in Online Social Networks

  1. hey you. i didn’t recognize you until i saw your halloween photos.

    anyway, interestingly, i am doing a project on social networks too, albeit one that focuses more on privacy in social networking context. You doing your hyp right? Are you doing it in a CS context or IS context? who is your supervisor?

    I was thinking of setting up a community website within nus to study the hypotheses.

  2. I just wanted to say that you chose a very interesting topic for your thesis. But, yes, I can totally see how it would lead to a lot of time-wasting and unproductive behavior!! At any rate, good luck to you!

  3. Personally I think that the success, if you wish, of an OSN depends heavily on prime features like design and coding… whether it has that magic Googlish easyness of use. And to a lesser extent on the personal side of fullfilling social needs.
    Compare Facebook and Friendster. Facebook is like tailor-made: it has all the functions you want, w/o the ones you don’t want, and it’s a breeze to use. Now take Friendster (or WAYN, or Hyves). It spams you with botted dating messages, makes it a pain to add a friend (WAYN!!), demands you to fill in all sort of nonsense you don’t want to put in (again, WAYN) or makes it extremely difficult to search for people (Friendster).
    OK, I realize that Facebook is good because it has been limited to colleges (and a few high schools) until now, but I guess my point is that what you call an active user (someone keeping his/her profile up to date, uploading photos, details) is primarily attracted when a good tech environment is there. Hence Facebook’s uber-popularity..
    Good luck with the thesis Bjorn,

  4. hey yeelin, i am doing it under Business School.. =) yes, very weird i know, i must be the first student there to do such a deviant topic and oh, i am graduating this semester, so the next month is gonna be helluva ride as i finish this thesis.

    you can study facebook, do check out fred stutzman’s blog because he deals with identity and privacy issues on social networks… http://chimprawk.blogspot.com or watch his presentation at Google headquarters on Google Video by searhing for “stutzman facebook”

  5. Wow… this is good stuff… you were able to pull through the structure to get something as radical as this into your research topic! Three cheers to that!

    What you’ve stated is an academic bastardization of a pretty interesting facebook trend. In my opinon, things like this just happen because of the people associated with it. Most people I met just get pretty excited with using facebook. 2 Legs — Right balance between features, ease of use and stuff in technology, and the people who starated it came from the Ivy Leagues – Harvard, Stanford, etc… Everyone wants to be part of the elite and that created the right hype. As soon as they got an opportunity, they jumped on the bandwagon. That’s facebook. Now, I am not sure if you can extrapolate this into “social networking” issues and stuff. Cause this is only one example. Slowly, I have gotten off everything else Friendster, Orkut, etc…. people just aren’t excited to be there. Then what’s the point… 😛

    My 2 cents worth… in any case… tell me your results once complete.

    Good Luck!

  6. And of course, doostang.com will be the facebook killer and zombo.com will be the doostang killer and ……

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