User Behaviour & Psychology / Article 2.
Feb. 2009, HCI Vistas Vol-V
Author: Ganesh Bhutkar
The domain of social networking is enhanced by efforts from entrepreneurs to capitalize on the social networking theory. Recent commercial interest has resulted in the emergence of multiple new websites dedicated to helping users capitalize on their social networks for dating, jobs, e-commerce, professional development etc. This article presents a comprehensive overview about users on Social Networking webSites (SNSs) along with some observations about their behavior. These observations are compiled based on authors experience with social network users, his discussions with Human Computer Interface (HCI) students and literature study.
Figure 1. Representation of SNS Users
As per Wikipedia, the first major Social Networking Site was SixDegrees.com, launched in 1997. During and just after dot-com bust, the SNSs attracted very limited number of users. The rapid growth of SNSs has come more recently since 2002-03. Many websites were launched for friendship and dating. These include websites like Friendster (2002), MySpace (2003), Orkut (2004), Facebook (2004) etc. They became extremely popular all across the globe and millions of users were attracted towards them. Thus, competition in the web market increased and few more websites with other aspects joined this bandwagon. The websites like Delicious (social bookmarking, 2003)), LinkedIn (business contacts, 2003), WAYN (travelling, 2003), Flickr (photo-sharing, 2004), and Answers (reference searching, 2005) started providing options to the users depending on their intension of socialization. A screen 1 shows a home page of WAYN - a social network for travelers.
Screen 1. WAYN - Social Network for Travelers
The user profiles on social networks consist of primary elements such as demographic information like sex, age, nationality, education, interest(s), self-description prose, picture(s), friend listings and testimonials etc. In the profile, providing both - a members perspective as well as that of his or her friends may be beneficial. The profile represents how the individual chooses to present identity at a specific time and with a particular understanding of ones audience. As discussed by Danah Boyd in his paper, the testimonials are only a tribute of the moment and reflect the same type of language one might see in a high school yearbook. The format of user profile may differ based on intensions of socialization on SNS. Screen 2 shows example of one user profile on LinkedIn - a network for business contacts.
Screen 2: Example of User Profile on LinkedIn
According to Bill Howard, social networks may differ in terms of who can join, who can see profile of member and how much of it is visible, whether sites are suitable for use on cell phones and their openness to web crawlers and other applications. The popularity, press coverage, diverse usage and future challenges make SNSs more suitable for study of users who visit and use them.
Types of Users on Social Neworks
Normally, to use SNS, user needs to register as a member with a respective SNS. As per Danah Boyd, the users of SNSs can be categorized as €“
Friends - These are the members of the social network whom the user knows personally in real life and trusts them as friends.
Friendsters - These are the members who may be indicated as friends by the user even though they are not known and trusted. A screen 3 shows a list of friends for Orkut user. Some of these friends without photographs appear to be friendsters.
Fakesters - These are the members with fake personas and they hide their actual personal information from other members.
Fraudsters - These are the members with fake personas and they can involve in fraudulent financial or sexual activity causing harm to other members.
Screen 3: Friends and Friendsters on Orkut
Observations about SNS Users
These observations are compiled based on authors experience with SNS users, classroom discussions with students for course of HCI and his study of various articles on SNSs in journals, conference proceedings and newsletters.
- Logically trustworthy
According to Danah Boyd, entrepreneurs and designers of social networking sites feel that the friends of friends are more likely to be good friends or dates than strangers and they would serve as a meaningful connectors and recommenders. These friends of friends are friendsters and friendsters can ensure more meaningful connections. But, author has observed that this assumption doesnt work often, as many of friendsters may become fakesters with or without reasons.
- Social Network Density and Relationships
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has argued that a person can sustain about 150 social relationships - online or offline; most of them should be friends. Likewise, author has come across the fact that members are more likely to become active users if they enter a dense and active network, which is full of friendsters or fakesters.
- Contributing Communities
Most members regularly search for users out of curiosity. In the process, they also get into touch with many friendsters to form a group or community. Many communities are quite active and form a close bonding among members. As discussed by Danah Boyd, a user with such account passed away in his sleep. The friendsters of this deceased member organized condolence meeting and posted messages in his remembrance.
- Creativity by Fakesters
When creating fakesters, members go out of their way to be as creative as possible in their profiles. These fakesters can provide useful services. Author came across a group of guys that created a fake female character to provide good testimonials for their friends and to introduce them to interesting women. The study conducted by Gibbs, Ellison and Heino found that social networks can make fakesters more fitter and healthier persons. Some fakesters, who underreport their weight, realize then that they better start losing weight to match their ideal profile one. Author has noticed that with multiple representations of a single person, fakesters are often used against some disliked members. Some fakesters are created out to confuse the members on that social network.
- Role of fakesters in the growth of social networks
Danah Boyd noticed that while fakesters have been an integral part of these websites for a long time, their vendors and designers have never approved them. One argument against fakesters is that they may collapse the social network, devaluing the meaning of connections between users. This argument assumes that the networks value is in trusted links and that a friend of a fakester is going to be less trustworthy or compatible than the real. By and large, most users love the fake characters. They become little hidden treasures in the network and users go seeking out the most creative and interesting ones. The website can become less interesting if the fakesters are removed. So, author has found that many researchers recognize that they might have some problems with the fakesters, but still they value the creative expression and the usefulness of many fakesters. Some users say that fakesters are actually great because they remind them that nothing presented on these networks is actually real.
Screen 4: Example of Fakesters Profile with Fake Photograph
- Deviation of Information in Profiles
Many friendsters are not completely fakesters; but there can be some deviation from factual information. Bill Howard has highlighted one survey about online profiles. It suggests that about 81% members provide information that deviates from reality. Men lie more about their height while women lie more about their weight. A screen 4 shows a profile of a fakester. This fakester has used photograph of famous Bollywood Star €“ John Abraham from India. Overall, author observed that members provide least accurate information about their photograph. More accurate is the photograph; more is the possibility that member is honest in ones profile information.
Screen 5. Facebook User, Friends and Friendsters
- User Authorization Vs. Social Network Growth
As discussed by Dave Kearns, it is essential that the account that gets created on SNS accurately reflects the true identity of the person that it is created for. This step can overcome much of the identity frauds or thefts that are prevalent today. But, author has noticed that if administrators of SNS focus strictly on authorization, then it affects the growth of social network. Such SNS will have all authenticated friends or friendsters, but the growth will become very slow. Most of SNSs opt for the other approach and grow exponentially. Windley et al., has observed that the exponential growth taxes the management capacity of site administrators. The continued health of SNS depends upon identification and utilization of users who make positive contributions to the community, but finding such contributing users is a real challenge.
- Group Dynamics in Communities
Dinesh Katres article highlights the issues of social psychology with e-mail discussion groups or communities. During discussions, most members often tend to polarize in the direction of a dominant group opinion. Sometimes, the dominant group may have majority of friendsters and fakesters who want to spoil the discussion. The severe comments by some friendsters may attract attention of others and have greater potential to influence the opinions of participants. Usually, members respond to echo similar opinions and forget to contribute their independent observations on the issue. During discussions, members always respond to friends or friendsters and this reciprocal behavior is out of the nature of €˜give and take or gratitude. Also, during the discussion, some spoilsport members who are friendsters, fakesters or even fraudsters, may send offensive comments and vanish. They usually have no intention of adding value to the discussion. This happens because many friendsters and fakesters feel that they are invisible and unaccountable in message communication.
- Fraud Business
Some fakesters act as fraudsters. Author has observed that they advertise porn websites on SNSs. Danah Boyd has noticed a group with fraudster profiles for selling drugs.
- Survey about Age Groups
There is a general and popular perception that social networking is an activity enjoyed almost exclusively by teens and youths only. But, a social networking research study by National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) - USA, reveals that a large number of adults (48 percent) are users of SNSs. The growing number of adults using SNSs is an indicator of the increasing popularity and potential security risks of these sites.
The observations about diverse users on social networks show that there is wider scope to study SNS users, their behavior and its impact on growth of SNSs. With the growth of social networks, dealing with fakesters and fraudsters has become a big challenge. So, there is a need for developing tools and mechanisms for identifying, validating and tracking down their mischievous activities to protect the interest of normal users. Then only social networks can lead to thoughtful interactions.
I thank my TE (Information Technology) students of HCI (2008-09) at VIT, Pune for their contributions during classroom discussions, which helped me to compile this paper work.
Bill Howard, Analyzing online social networks, Communications of the ACM, Nov 2008, Vol-51, No-11, 14-16.
Danah Boyd, Friendster and publicly articulated social networking, Proceedings of ACM Conference on Human factors and Computing Systems (CHI), Vienna, April 2004.
Dave Kearns, Validation, authorization: the next steps to identity management, Network World, 08/20/2008.
J. Gibbs, N. Ellison, R. Heino, €œSelf-presentation in online personals, Communication Research, Vol-33, No-2, April 2006, 152-177.
NCSA Survey on SNS Users, 2006.
P. Windley, D. Daley, B. Cutler, K. Tew, Using reputation to augment explicit authorization, Proceedings of ACM Workshop on Digital Identity Management, 2007, 72-81.
Ganesh Bhutkar is Computer Engineering and Management postgraduate and currently pursuing PhD in Medical Usability. He is an Assistant Professor at VIT, Pune, India. He has published about 10 research papers and associated with some International Journals as associate editor and reviewer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org