social networking: How we do it at work but what about Facebook and Friendfeed?

by Urs E. Gattiker on 2008/08/17 · 2 comments 1 views

in white papers research

    So what does this mean for those people trying to use LinkedIn or Twitter to stay in touch with their virtual network?

    Could it be that we share different stuff online than we do with our ‘real’ social network off-line?

    Or is all done the same way and Wired just had a great headline grabber while failing to read the research paper properly? Reality mining in the workplace provides new insights.

Recently I came across the headline Online Networks don’t function like Real World Networks that said:

    What I found most interesting about the article is that when you have a problem and go online to solve it, you usually depend on an extensive network full of people you hardly know.
    But when you have a problem offline in the workplace, typically you work with a tight-knit group that you work with and know intimately. And those tight-knit group are – not surprisingly – very efficient.

The above quotes got me intrigued and I went to read the Wired article (Clive Thompson on Real-World Social Networks vs. Facebook ‘Friends’ 07.21.08) on which the above quote was based upon: The Wired article (I do not hyperlink to it on purpose – it does not deserve a link :-) ) also stated:

    “… super-connector — the crucial person who routes news among team members — isn’t the manager.” The super-connector … “And that person is usually overworked and overstressed. He isn’t given enough support to fulfill his role, because nobody in the firm knows he’s doing it in the first place. If you study the org chart, the higher-ups are in control. But if you study reality, those same managers barely know what’s going on.”

All this stuff got me confused and I failed to see how this all related with Facebook and social-networks in our career or, specifically, at our workplace. Hence, I went to the trouble to find Benjamin N. Waber, e-mailed with him and got the latest version of the research paper that the above was based upon. You can download it – see link further below. What a surprise it was to read the white paper and getting the facts. Here I share with you what I learned from the research paper.

What did the study do

The study is part of research in the reality mining domain – by the way, great study. Reality mining uses location-aware devices such as mobile phones or electronic badges to track what people do during the work day. The researchers used a wearable sociometric badge that has advanced sensing, processing, and feedback capabilities enabling them to recognize common daily human activities, capturing nonlinguistic signals such as interest and excitement, performing indoor user loalization, capturing face-to-face interaction and so forth (see pp. 5-6 of the research report link provided further below for more details on this).

Electronic communication channels, which include telephone, fax, e-mail, instant messaging, and video conferencing, have been examined by previous research. These studies have attempted to extract social network structures by looking at e-mail only and some reported that e-mail alone defined 72% of a social network’s density, the total number of edges implied by merging email and chat explained 85% of the overall network density (see p. 7 for details on this)

The researchers point out that e-mail only captures digital interactions, it is unclear whether this accurately represents “real world” interactions. The same applies for social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. Hence, they used reciprocal e-mail only for examining relationships between co-workers.

The sample used for the study consisted of 22 employees distributed into four teams working in a German bank.

Results reported

Hypothesis one stated: “The greater the amount of face-to-face interaction an individual has the greater amount of electronic communication they have.”

The findings let the researchers conclude that the overall number of people in close proximity had a high negative correlation with the number of e-mails exchanged (r = -0.55, p < 0.01). There also was no significant correlation between face-to-face interactions detected over infrared and e-mail activity. Hence, the greater the number of co-workers in close proximity, the lower the volume of e-mails the person got.

Nevertheless, when data were looked at by controlling for status (e.g., manager to manager, employee to employee) that were proximate to each other, correlations were high and significant. According to the researchers this might suggest that only in very “flat” organizations is e-mail a reasonable proxy for face-to-face interactions.

Considering that the study was done in a bank in Germany, results in a bank in Denmark or Sweden might also be different (less hierarchical structure, cultural differences).

What about Facebook

Some people claim, including Clive Thompson in his Wired article, that online, the best way to solve a problem is to engage an extensive network. Accordingly, the person providing advice or input might not be known that well nor be seen every other day – a weak link.

But the study discussed here would suggest that strong ties including face-to-face contact and meetings help groups to become more productive. Both verbal and non-verbal communication support the transfer of information and trust amongst a group allows to share and be open about issues.

For Facebook, one of my neighbours feels that if she knows people are around and she can drop in or meet with them face-to-face, she prefers not to spend time on Facebook to get in touch. Neither is it clear if people on one’s extensive network that one barely knows – loose ties – are a good resource for advice when one faces making tough decisions (e.g., how to deal with a nasty boss?).

In the study discussed here, the researchers reported that interacting with others may be done for two reasons:

1) soliciting information on a difficult task or for
2) social reasons.

If a task is so difficult that additional information is required, then interacting with others to get advice and input is actually aiding completion. If the interaction is a social activity, however, it is clearly detracting from completion time. With Facebook, it means frittering away time on the internet, instead of visiting your friends in person and spending time with them.

CHECK OUT THE PAPER, WORTH THE EFFORT – and no, it does not say we do it different online than we do it person-to-person. What we still have to know is if we do things different at work (online or face-to-face) versus non-work, across different countries, and so on:

Waber, B. N., Olguin, D. O., Kim, T., & Pentland, A S. (August 2008). Understanding organitzaional behavior with wearable sensing technology. Paper presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Anaheim = 36 pages – download as pdf.


Experts would typically define social media as online applications that aim to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users.

However, consumers might take a broader view of what social media encompasses. Accordingly, for users any digital form of personal communication that helps enable peer collaboration and sharing is likely to be included, such as, short text messaging (SMS), LinkedIn or micro-blogging (e.g., Twitter).

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  • David Bradley

    It’s a good idea to sign up with all these web 2.0 sites, to make sure that no one else uses your name or brand…they could spoof your friends with a mocked up site and make you look bad.

    Moreover, online social networking is not for online saddos, there’s much more to it than that despite the media hype and rhetoric.

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