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Part Two: Backwaters and Intergroup Strangerhood

To add to my thoughts on Friendster: Even with highly-connected avatars like God, the Borg, Camel Toe et al connecting you to people you do not know, there will always be people on Friendster to whom your connections do not extend within a reasonable number of separation degrees.

Fluid currents like, say, a river probably make for a good comparison here. Not that I ever took physics, so this will be more metaphorical than scientific… There are people like Jessamyn who have over a hundred Friendster connections; they’re out in the middle of the current. Follow their connections out a few degrees, though, and you may find someone who has only one or two connections, or is part of a small circle linking to only a few outside people; ignoring the pejorative connotations of the term, they are in backwaters. There will be social backwaters past the four-degree separation limits that Friendster will display for you, and unless someone in them connects to a Hello Kitty avatar on a whim, these people will remain strangers to you.

OK, using Friendster as a model is getting limiting… obviously there will always be people outside of your social circle… and personal threshholds of who you consider strangers or not-strangers is bound to vary from person to person; most people seem to draw their line far closer to themselves than I do. And then my aunt’s question about how one deals with strangers as opposed to friends or acquaintances still stands.

Before I move on to that topic I want to return to the connectivity we gained through college, and how, despite the fact that it once seemed to connect us to everyone, it is socially stratified. I mean, I felt so connected by the time I hit the Bronx in 2000 I might have expected to meet people there who knew friends of friends — strangers with a higher probability of becoming not-strangers than your average stranger — but the fact of the matter is that due to college attendance patterns in the place where I was working (a welfare-to-work nonprofit slash elementary school whose staff mostly grew up in New York and went to community colleges) that was pretty unlikely.

I’d be really interested to get a clear picture of the divides between social circles of those who have gone to different flavors of college and those who have not — a sense of the degree of intergroup strangerhood. I suppose Friendster could be used for these experiments: How many degrees of separation away from your friends do you have to go before you find someone, say, whose job requires only an associate’s degree or a high-school diploma? (keeping in mind, of course, that on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog and not a dermatologist.) How many people of that description do you find while randomly surfing the Friendster network?

Similar investigation could be done geographically over Friendster, but except in parts of large metro areas that line of inquiry would be inexact, since Friendster represents current location by ZIP code. Interestingly, the “hometown” category can be entered by the user, so that might yield more specific results — someone could conceivably enter Northeast Pasadena as opposed to Southeast Pasadena; and of course, block-to-block variations in income would still not be well-reflected.

Lunch is over. Discuss amongst yerselves.


  1. itamar wrote:

    Other types of groups are tied by ethnicity. My favorite story: my Australian cousin is over with his Israeli girlfriend. Turns out she went to university with my friend Hefzibah. The next week Hefzibah was in NY, staying at her aunt and uncle’s, and when I stopped by they told me they were the people who introduced my aunt to my uncle. I have no doubt similar things would happen with any Jew living in the Upper West Side, so this is closely tied to geography and income patterns as well.

    Good indicators include education, geography, income, profession, and getting bits cut off (you know you’re in trouble when you have a doctor telling you not to have sex in the weeks before your wedding). Musicians would be an interesting group to look at, using album credits and shared professions as a connection.

    In my case profession is the way I met most of my friends, but programmers are unfortunately a very restricted group in most dimensions. To give an extra-bonus-combo example, I interviewed with a guy named Alex Jacobson today, and of course he’s lived in the Upper West Side all his life (and if the name isn’t a hint, he’s Jewish).

    Monday, August 11, 2003 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  2. kellan wrote:

    Some links that back up claims about the clumpy nature of the space, if perhaps failing to answer the more metaphysical questions.

    Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  3. Roger wrote:

    Something called “social network theory” (which quite closely resembles what you’ve written above, though it doesn’t rely on Friendster for the links in its networks) is currently all the rage in certain (largely more conservative/”empirical”) branches of the social sciences. It’s derived from a lot of the same sources as the graph- and information-theoretic angles that us computer geeks know, but places its emphases somewhat differently. This is prime grad-school material.

    See also:

    Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I think the term for it is scaleless network. Something like that. It’s scaleless in that the number of connections a person can have have goes all the way from one to pretty much infinity. There are quite a few people (real ones, not avatars) who have very high numbers. The “who worked with whom” network in Hollywood really does appear to be scaleless, and so is the network of who’s had sex with whom in a geographic region. But globally, that looks more like a regular network. Friendster is odd because you can take people off your friend list anytime, and create fake identities. That makes for more of a dynamic, indescribable hash than a mathematical object.

    Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  5. kermix wrote:

    Earlier this year I wrote about authenticity of internet persons, which is only slightly related but still worth a thought. Of course, then it descended into technological jibber-jabber, which even I wasn’t interested in at the time. I was more interested in the physical aspect of the thing myself.

    Friday, August 22, 2003 at 10:24 am | Permalink
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