Fighting the “artificial positivity” on Facebook with EnemyGraph

A new Facebook app called EnemyGraph allows users to openly mark their “enemies” on Facebook:

EnemyGraph, a new app for Facebook, allows users to do just that: Declare their enemies on the world’s most popular social network.

It may sound sinister, but the motivation is more sociological, say the developers, a group from the Emerging Media + Communications program at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Facebook has this artificial positivity kind of forced upon it,” said Harrison Massey, a student at UT Dallas who, along with Dean Terry, the director of the program, and Bradley Griffith, a graduate student, collaborated to develop the app. “We believe that there is a certain amount of health in saying that you don’t like something, that something is your enemy, because you can create conversations about that. You can bond with people over that.”

Massey said, for example, that users could bond over the common dislike of a company or a political party…

“We are misusing the word ‘enemy’ the same way that Facebook misuses the word ‘friend,”‘ Terry, the UT professor behind the project, told HuffPost. “It’s totally inaccurate. It’s not about individuals. It’s really about things in popular culture.”

Several thoughts about this:

1. I think Facebook is pretty smart by limiting the negativity within the software itself. Of course, users can make negative statements on walls but even these can be deleted. Since Facebook is about connecting people, formal negativity could detract from this. Let’s say that you don’t like someone’s posts: Facebook’s easiest answer these days is to simply block them from showing up on your news feed. The genius is that the other person doesn’t know this so the negative interaction between the two people is limited and life goes on.

2. EnemyGraph seems to be channeling the sort of sentiment sometimes expressed by users asking for a “dislike” button to balance the “like” button. Isn’t it more “balanced” to have both options?

3. Perhaps in EnemyGraph’s favor, social interactions, particularly group interactions, are often reliant on clearly labeling who is “in” and who is “out.” Without the easy ability to mark who is “out” in Facebook, marking symbolic and moral boundaries becomes more difficult. Developing deeper relationships through having common enemies could be more difficult. Of course, drawing strong subgroup boundaries can lead to other issues such as antagonism between groups.

4. I bet Facebook would argue (and perhaps could even prove) that their current system actually increases social interaction and introducing more negative capabilities would limit social interaction. Think about other areas of web interaction (comment sections or pages like Digg) and see how the ability to formally report negative feelings leads to a different kind of environment.

5. I’m amused about broadly defining “enemy” just as Facebook broadly defines “friend.”

Dunbar’s number: 150 friends is our limit

It seems like it is pretty easy to collect hundreds of friends on Facebook. Between people we know from years of schools plus jobs plus other activities, the number can increase quickly. But having a large number of online “friends” goes against Dunbar’s number:

Most of Dunbar’s research has focused on why the GORE-TEX model was a success. That model is based on the idea that human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads. Dunbar has researched the idea so deeply, the number 150 has been dubbed “Dunbar’s Number.”

Ironically, the term was coined on Facebook, where 150 friends may seem like precious few…

Dunbar has found 150 to be the sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies all over the world. From the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150 people. Amish and Hutterite communities — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule.

The reason 150 is the optimal number for a community comes from our primate ancestors, Dunbar says. In smaller groups, primates could work together to solve problems and evade predators. Today, 150 seems to be the number at which our brains just max out on memory.

Dunbar goes on to suggest that larger organizations then have to find ways to create smaller groups where people can still maintain connections with others.

I’ve thought for a while that Facebook should move away from saying that all people you are connected to are “friends.” This indicates a closeness that I suspect doesn’t really exist in many of these online relationships. They are probably more like “acquaintances” or “people you have interacted with.” But, imagine what would happen if someone you thought was a friend marks you an acquaintance or vice versa. Additionally, by calling everyone a friend, you are suggesting that you are open to a broader set of relationships and Facebook is interested in bringing more people together. If we wanted to get more sociological, we might call these “strong” and “weak” ties but this seems fairly impersonal.

Figures from a few years ago suggested that people had an average of 120 Facebook friends. This still seems like a lot even as sociological research from 2006 (read the full study here) suggests that Americans have fewer confidants and less contact with existing confidants:

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today’s American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all…

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found. “If something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net,” Smith-Lovin says.

Here are two tentative hypotheses regarding this data:

1. Younger Facebook users are more likely to have higher numbers of friends. This seems to be driven by being students in high school and college where it is common to friend lots of people across a broad swath of classroom, social activity, and living situations.

2. Older Facebook users are more uncomfortable with the term “friends” to describe online relationships. Of course, as the younger generation ages and is used to such terms, the term will become more normal.

Your social network might lead to disease

A study of the passing of swine flu among a set of schoolchildren found that the disease was primarily spread through one’s social network:

A new study of a 2009 epidemic at a school in Pennsylvania has found that children most likely did not catch it by sitting near an infected classmate, and that adults who got sick were probably not infected by their own children.

Closing the school after the epidemic was under way did little to slow the rate of transmission, the study found, and the most common way the disease spread was a through child’s network of friends…

The scientists collected data on 370 students from 295 households. Almost 35 percent of the students and more than 15 percent of their household contacts came down with flu. The most detailed information was gathered from fourth graders, the group most affected by the outbreak.

The class and grade structure had a significant effect on transmission rates. Transmission was 25 times as intensive among classmates as between children in different grades. And yet sitting next to a student who was infected did not increase the chances of catching flu.

Social networks were apparently a more significant means of transmission than seating arrangements. Students were four times as likely to play with children of the same sex as with those of the opposite sex, and following this pattern, boys were more likely to catch the flu from other boys, and girls from other girls.

This sounds like a very interesting dataset as it was collected in real-time as the disease spread. Hopefully, we will get more data like this in the future so that we aren’t left with the problem of trying to trace a disease’s spread after the fact. But getting this kind of data would require more intense observation (or records) of a specific group of people.

If closing the school is not the answer, how then should authorities respond in order to slow down the spread of disease?

Sounds like another advantage for Social Networking Sites where you can interact with your friends with only the threat of a computer virus…

American TV shows help limit extremism in Saudi Arabia

The cables Wikileaks has put out contain all sorts of interesting information. According to the Telegraph, some American cultural products, such as Desperate Housewives, The David Letterman Show, and Friends, are valuable forces in combating jihad in Saudi Arabia:

In a message sent back to Washington DC, officials at the US Embassy in Jeddah said the shows, starring Jennifer Aniston and Eva Longoria, were successfully undermining the spread of jihadist ideas among the country’s youth.

Such programmes, broadcast with Arabic subtitles on several Saudi satellite channels, were part of a push by the kingdom to foster openness and counter extremists, according to the cable…

The diplomatic cable was headed “David Letterman: Agent of Influence,” referring to the US chat show host who is also being broadcast to a Saudi audience.

The May 2009 cable said: “Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.” American sitcoms and chat shows were said to be finding a popular audience even in remote, conservative parts of the kingdom.

I’m glad such shows can be put to use – but this probably wasn’t a use that American TV executives expected…

On a more serious note, this highlights how American cultural products can be exported to other countries. Whether these shows reflect “American culture” can be debated but they certainly can introduce new ideas and values. Our military power might be impressive but American TV, movies, music, and more often have their own powerful influence.

The “friendship paradox” and the spread of disease

The social dimensions of diseases and medical conditions continue to draw research attention, particularly for those interested in mapping and understanding fast-spreading illnesses. A recent study, undertaken by a sociologist and medical geneticist/political scientist, explores how the flu spreads:

The persons at the center of a social network are exposed to diseases earlier than those at the margins states the paradox. Again, your friends are probably more popular than you are, and this “friendship paradox” may help predict the spread of infectious disease. However, Christakis and Fowler found that analyzing a social network and monitoring the health of members is an optimal way to predict a wave of influenza, detailed information simply doesn’t exist for most social groups, and producing it is time-consuming and expensive…

[Sociologist Nicholas] Christakis states: We think this may have significant implications for public health. Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.

This sounds like it has more promise than recently proposed techniques like monitoring Google searches or Twitter feeds.

Additionally, more and more research suggests that monitoring and analyzing social networks is critical for understanding the complex world. Rather than simply examining individuals, we now have some tools to map and model more complex social relationships.