Social Applications are Social Networks

by Jesse Farmer on Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are all social applications also social networks? Dave McClure made a passing reference to this a little over a year ago, saying "RockYou & Slide [are] arguably social networks of their own."Google Open Social + Friends vs. Facebook Platform I want to make the stronger claim: social applications are always social networks.

It doesn't matter how large you are, it doesn't matter what your goals are, and it doesn't matter what your product is. I think if you're building a social application then you're trying to build a new social network. As we'll see, this has both strategic and technical implications.

What is a Social Network?

First, if I'm going to convince you that something is a social network we should understand what a social network is. If you ask a person to name a few social networks, they will probably list services like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. And if an investor tells you they're "not investing in social networks," they mean it in this concrete, social-network-as-a-product sense.

Others, like Brad Fitzpatrick and Mark Zuckerberg, use the term social graphSee, e.g., Thoughts on the Social Graph to distinguish between the underlying social relations between people and the services, called social networks, that are built on top of them.

But if there's one thing I learned from my mathematics education it's this: we're free to define things however we want so long as they're consistent. Therefore we ought to choose the definition that helps us get our job done.

So, here is my first, and most abstract definition:

A social network is a collection of people bound together through a specific set of social relations.

By "social relation" I mean a connection between people that permits the exchange of information. This prevents artificial relations like "Alex and James are connected if they have the same hair color."

When I say "social network" I always mean the actual collection of people. Facebook is a social network. There are actual people engaged with the site, creating relationships, sharing information, and doing all the things they'd do in "real life." Or, put another way: a family is a social network, a family tree is not.Ceci n'est pas un Social Network

If you don't like the above definition I can give you a functional one which I believe is equivalent.

A collection of people is a social network if and only if it is possible for something to spread virally through that collection.

In Web 2.0 speak, a "social network" is a collection of people over which you can "go viral". I believe that virality and social networks are fundamentally linked, and that both the above definitions are equivalent.

Social Applications are Social Networks

Accepting the above definitions, even if for the sake of argument, I don't think it's too hard to see why social applications are social networks. Let's take Slide's Top Friends as an example. Is Top Friends a social network in its own right?

I think it's easier to see that Top Friends meets the first definition. It is certainly a collection of people: the set of Facebook users who have installed the application. Are those people bound by specific social relations? Yes, and those relations are distinct from the ones represented in Facebook. For example, Alex adding James as a top friend is a social signal distinct from Facebook.

What about the second definition? Top Friends doesn't have an external API so it's impossible to build apps or plugins for Top Friends.For all I know Slide has an internal Top Friends API that lets them build new services that ride on Top Friends' success, but that's only speculation. So, what "goes viral" over Top Friends? New features and patterns of usage do.This is the essence of engagement loops. Eric Ries talks about going "beyond viral." There is no "beyond viral." Rather, on social networks viral processes govern the whole stack: acquisition, retention, engagement, and monetization.

I'd also argue that the converse is true: social networks are all social applications. YouTube spread through MySpace, Facebook spread through email, email spread through the real-life "social graph", and PayPal spread through eBay.Slide is to Facebook as Paypal was to eBay. Anyone buy it? All social networks are social applications built off of pre-existing social networks.

Strategic Implications

If Top Friends is a social network in its own right then there are strategic implications for Facebook. Prima facie, Top Friends is competing with facebook for users' attention on its own platform. Before Facebook launched the Platform it was the Eye of Providence, collecting, collating, and analyzing every bit of activity that occurred on its network.

After the Platform launched these third parties were able to infect portions of Facebook's network. In some cases, e.g., the Causes application, the relationship was symbiotic. In others, e.g., Top Friends, the relationship was antagonistic, with Facebook actually shutting down Top Friends at one point.See this TechCrunch article.

What does Facebook gain by having Top Friends on its Platform? Nothing substantial, as far as I can tell. What does it lose? Control and insight over the activities of its userbase.There's a broader argument that ceding control in this way is the right strategic move, but Facebook is not there yet — the limit of that argument is something like OpenSocial.

In effect, Top Friends is a social network bootstrapped off of Facebook, with its own set of communication channels over which Facebook has no authority or insight. This tension is present everywhere in the Platform because application developers' interests are not wholly aligned with Facebook's and will probably never be.

Technical Implications

I'm going to save the technical implications for another article, but it boils down to this: social networks in the sense that I defined above are fairly well understood. I believe the techniques used on the web today to grow "viral" applications are under the research from fields like social network analysis and epidemiology.

Since I believe social applications and social networks are synonymous, we can better understand how these applications grow by understanding how social networks grow.

In the meantime, I recommend reading The Statistical Evaluation of Social Network Dynamics by Tom A. B. Snijders from the University of Groningen if you're interested in the technical aspects of social networks and social applications.

And please, leave a comment if you have any thoughts about the above!