With all the (still-growing) hype and banter about “The Social Network,” the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin movie about Mark Zuckerberg and his circle of ex-friends and partners and the events leading up to the founding of Facebook, the film is soaring to pop culture iconic proportions, which could well be buttressed by a best picture Oscar early next year. Already dubbed by a Sony executive as 'the first really modern movie,' Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column yesterday, noted how the film shares some strikingly similar themes as found in Wagner's feudal 'Das Rheingold,' or the Ring Cycle, which some claim inspired J.R. R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings.' According to Dowd, those themes, epitomized by "quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequences of deceit," and "fighting about social status, identity, money, power, turf, control,
lust and love" simply underscore how little human drama changes through the ages.
Yet, from everything I've read about the film and what it says about the social network about which the plot unfolds, I would have to say that the person who really nailed what Facebook is and the functions it serves was New York Times film critic A. O. Scott. In his words:
THE great virtue of Facebook — as articulated early in “The Social Network” by Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student who was one of that site’s founders — is that it is “exclusive.” This may sound counterintuitive, given that one of the seductions of Facebook in the real world is that it is open to everyone. Far from exclusive, the network seems to have the potential to become universal.
But of course what the fictionalized Zuckerberg means is not that access to his nascent network is limited (though at this point in the story it exists only within the already restricted pool of Harvard students), but rather that the people who enlist can choose the company they keep. The film’s viewers, even those who have resisted the charms of Mr. Zuckerberg’s company, will recognize the logic, both human and mathematical, that has turned the word “friend” into a transitive verb with a newly formed opposite. Every Facebook user, friending and unfriending at will, can travel freely in intersecting circles of his or her own design.
In the utopian version of this resulting horizonless network, status is not something inherited or enforced by others or even earned: it is something you can change, update and revise according to your own whims. You are who you say you are, and what you want to be — a citizen of a perfect Emersonian republic of self-selection and self-reliance.
Another way of articulating the nature and functioning of Facebook from a more academic perspective is to consider it within the context of the long-standing concept of 'weak ties.' As conceived in his famous 1973 American Journal of Sociology paper, "The Strength of Weak Ties," sociologist Mark Granovetter argued that weak social ties play a more critical role in the transmission of information through social networks than strong ties with our closest friends and intimates. Think about it: Our close friends tend to move in the same circles and access the same information channels as we do. They know about the same films, concerts, TV shows, new products, gossip, etc. as we do. Whereas the information our close friends receive considerably overlaps what we already know, acquaintances (i.e., weak ties) tend to hang out with people we don't know, and may have quite different media usage habits and behavioral patterns. From our perspective, they receive more novel information.
Now, it has been estimated that the average person has 500 to 1500 weak ties, but only 11-12 intimate connections. It also has been suggested that 150 is the upward limit to the number of social contacts the average person can maintain in his or her life, the so-called 'Dunbar number.' More precisely, the Dunbar number is the theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. True, I realize that number sounds like a lot, but then my name is not Dunbar and I did not come up with this figure. But then again, it is far more easy today to stay in relatively constant contact with more people than possible in the pre-texting, pre-email era. But what does all this have to do with Facebook?
As it turns out, the way most people manage their Facebook friends coincides very closely to the numbers above and also tends to reflect the ideas concerning strong versus weak ties. Let's consider some numbers: As famously pointed out in a 2009 article in The Economist on Facebook and the size of social networks, the average number of Facebook friends among current users is 120. Yet most people actively interact with only a small subset of that total - less than 20, however you measure it. More specific details regarding maintained Facebook relationships is seen in the following graphic, from Cameron Marlowe's Overstated blog (the numbers may vary, but the point is consistent):
To pull these points together, it appears that, contrary to popular opinion, online social networks like Facebook do not appear to increase the size of one's social network (in essence, reitering 'The Social Network' notion of exclusivity). Thus, although you may experience a periodic rush when you see your Facebook friends total steadily rising, you are not gaining new friends in the traditional sense of the word. You are gaining access to an increasing number of weak ties, people you will follow passively for good (you will have access to information and lifestyles you would not otherwise be privy to) or bad (you will be bored out of your skull) - this isn't exclusivity, it's inclusivity. As a possible resolution to this apparent inclusivity/exclusivity conundrum, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project Lee Rainey argued the following:
"What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively. Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much 'networking' as they are 'broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren't necessarily inside the Dunbar circle."
The outer tier of acquaintances that Rainey is referring to is what Granovetter had in mind when he elaborated on weak ties. Sure, a number of your Facebook friends may be old schoolmates or distant relatives you've long lost touch with. So there clearly is a nostalgia element to the Facebook friending system. But in the context of social networking theory, there's obviously a lot more going on here.