Notes on How Stuff Works: Social Networks

Looking Before Facebook

Facebook has become the quintessential online social network, but it has not always been so, nor was it the first of the online social networks.

BBS screen capture image

1994/1995 Flatland BBS Menu Screen – CC licensed image from Flickr user Tim Patterson

Online social networks emerged as the earliest forms of the Internet, like dial-up bulletin-board systems (BBS) (Grabianowski, 2009). These early tools were designed to connect people with common interests in a computer-networked environment—the core concept of the online social network.

Two defining characteristics of an online social network are the ability to create a personal profile to share with others and the ability for users to link to one another, creating lists of connected friends and contacts (Grabianowski). What often differentiates online social networks are interests and regional affiliations. While Twitter is a more universal microblogging social networking site, many other sites are more regionally defined, like Orkut in Brazil and Weibo in China.

Social networking did not originate on the Internet, much to the surprise of millennials and generation digital. Psychologist Jacob Levy Moreno introduced the sociogram in the early 1930s as “the first formal attempt to map out the relationships within a group of people [using] a cluster of individual points, or ‘nodes,’ connected by straight lines…” (Roos, 2007). In 1954, the term “social network” was first used in a scientific context by anthropologist John Arundel Barnes to “describe the complex relationships in a Norwegian fishing village” (Roos). Online social networks make the complicated process of mapping out one’s network of connections much easier.

Social networks are especially useful and important because they can be mined for social capital, networked human resources collected among relationships with other people. The fundamental principle of online social network LinkedIn is the remarkable interconnectedness of our professional networks. Social capital can be “spent” to get a new job, find a great place to eat, discover a hidden gem among Cambodian hostels, or find someone new with whom to discuss the latest films, comic books, or just about anything else.

Relationships in social media can be categorized as “strong ties” and “weak ties.” The power of social media is the ability to capitalize on weak ties to draw new connections, collect new social capital, and discover new networks of relationships (Roos, 2007). Technology’s effect on social networks has been to make it far easier than ever before to “connect and maintain even more strong and weak ties” (Roos). Technology has also spawned concepts like glocalization: “the free flow of information between local and global social networks” (Roos), and networked individualism, “switching back and forth between various social networks based on the particular social capital we’re seeking” (Roos).

Back to Facebook

Image of Facebook map

Map of my Facebook “Universe” – CC licensed image from Flickr user Porter Novelli Global

Facebook’s original creators—Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskowitz, and Chris Hughes—developed the first version of Facebook (then called as a website for enabling Harvard students to “get in touch with one another, share their photos and meet new people” (Strickland 2007). From such humble beginnings it has grown into the quintessential social network that it is today. At its heart the network consists of nodes that represent individual profiles; those profiles are intended to represent real people, with an expected 1-to-1 correlation between a person and a profile, meaning it’s against Facebook terms of service to maintain multiple profiles. As a network, Facebook connects millions of people across the globe in many-to-one, many-to-many, one-to-many, and one-to-one relationships.

Beyond The Facebook

Social networks are found in organizations, often in tandem with the organizational chart or structure. Social network analysis (SNA) is an organizational strategy that seeks “to improve individual and organizational effectiveness” (Thompson, 2006). The technique seeks to “make visible the hidden connections [beyond or outside the organizational chart] that are important for sharing information, decision-making and innovation in an organization” (Thompson). SNA offers a unique opportunity to examine shadow networks in organizations and discover how they can and do improve worker performance and productivity. One of the potential results of SNA is the flattening of organizational hierarchies to more accurately reflect the shape of a social network—dynamic and defined by the relationships among its nodes, not by an external hierarchy or framework. In this way, the social network reflects what Foucault suggests about discourse: it exists and is classified by its relationship with other objects of discourse.


In a digital medium of your choice, map out your online social networking site network.

  1. Create a structure that lists your online social networking sites. Nodes should be individual social networking sites.
  2. Draw connections where there are common intersections among the social networking sites. These might include the same friends in multiple networks or using one network (like Google) to log into or post to another network (like Twitter or Facebook).
  3. List as many online social networking sites as possible, keeping in mind the two characteristics of online social networking tools (above).
  4. Try to distinguish between more often used and less often used online social networking sites—could be by color, by size, or some other differentiator.

Post a screen capture of the map to your blog, along with a very brief comment on the results. I’ve created a mindmap in Popplet as an example.


Grabianowski, E. (2009). What is a social networking site? [Article]. Retrieved from

Roos, D. (2007). How social networking works [Article]. Retrieved from

Statement of Rights and Responsibilities [Web page]. (2013, November 15). Retrieved 17 January 2014 from

Strickland, J. (2007). How Facebook works [Article]. Retrieved from

Thompson, K. (2006). Social network analysis: An introduction [Article]. Retrieved from The Bumble Bee website:


Patterson, T. (1995). 1994/1995 Flatland BBS menu screen [Creative Commons image]. Retrieved from Flickr

Porter Novelli Global. (2008). Map of my Facebook “Universe” [Creative Commons image]. Retrieved from Flickr

3 thoughts on “Notes on How Stuff Works: Social Networks

  1. Pingback: It’s All in the Social Networks | Dawn of the Cyborg

  2. Daniel – This is very nicely researched. The history bits in particular are lovely because it makes it clear social networks are nothing new but they are *visible* in ways that they’ve not been before, which gives them an alternate materiality.

    • Thanks for the feedback and the tie-in to Foucault’s insistence on the materiality of discourse. I had not considered online social networks to be “material”—probably the result of overusing “virtual” to describe what happens online—but they do offer more visible materiality. And we use that visible materiality for specific tasks, including measuring social media credibility. If a corporate Facebook page lacks a large number of Likes, it’s considered less “credible” and trustworthy than one with more Likes. A crude measure that Klout attempts to more directly formalize, but still an interesting use of the visible materiality that online social networking enables, even encourages.

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