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How can friendship be defined today?

In today’s world dominated by interaction through technology and social networks, what really is friendship? Can accepting a friend on Facebook, following someone on Twitter, or liking someone’s photo on Instagram really constitute a friendship? These are all questions that researchers are trying to figure out today. New social networks, specifically Path, FamilyLeaf, and Pair, are also trying to figure out the answer to this question and find ways to adapt social networking to its answer. These social networking systems, unlike Facebook, put restrictions on ‘friendships’; Path allows users to have 150 friends, FamilyLeaf allows users to only connect to family members, and Pair allows users to connect to only one other person. These social networks are not aiming to compete directly with large-scale networks like Facebook, but they do want to emphasize the idea that a true friendship may be different than simply being able to view someone’s photos and posts on Facebook.

Both Path and Pair, two of the social networks emphasized in this article, put an upper bound on the number of friends that users can have. While the average American has 245 friends on Facebook, these new social networks restrict every user’s friends. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, has claimed that any person can have no more than 150 friends due to a neurological limit; within these 150 friends, only 50 can be trusted friends, 15 can be good friends, and 5 can be best friends. This idea would disprove theories that we have considered thus far in the course. The upper limit on friendships could very easily disprove the strong triadic closure property, which states that if one person has a strong relationship with two people then those two people must have a relationship as well. On a site like Path, a user may have two close friends in the ‘trusted friend’ that may not have a defined friendship if they have already reached their 150-person friend limit. This would immediately violate the strong triadic closure property. If a person on Path is connected to two people, there is no way for those two to have interaction at all! The strong triadic closure property is very intuitive: if someone is good friends with two people, there is incentive and opportunity for these two people to meet and very likely have something in common. Putting a limit on the number of friendships in a social network may restrict new friendships from forming due to strong ones in a friendship triangle.

However, the key word in the strong triadic closure property is of course strong.  Only strong relationships between nodes will facilitate a connection between nodes with no edge between them. In a world of social media, how can the strength of a friendship be determined? Do the number of likes, shares, and comments determine the strength of a true friendship? Another thing to consider is if social networks can identify negative relationships as well. The line between a weak friendship and a negative relationship may be very small. On a social network like Facebook, there could exist negative relationships between users. Negative relationships could create unstable relationship triangles and an overall unstable network. These new forms of social media are using smaller numbers of friends in order to assure balanced networks as they try to assure that all edges will be positive relationships. Still, we must continue to try to define ‘friendships’ in our world today that is becoming less reliant on personal interactions and more reliant on social media networks.



Social Networks, Small and Smaller

Randall Stross

April 14, 2012


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