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Social Networks – what makes them work

by Eva Amsen

For some reason I’m being bombarded with social networks for scientists lately.

First of all: you can call your website a “social network”, but it’s just not a social network until there is actually a network of social interaction. There is no such thing as a “new social network website”, because if it’s new there’s nobody there and if there’s nobody there it’s not a network.

What makes sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn so successful is the fact that so many people are on there. You can actually find people you might want to connect with on those sites. They have different audiences – some more academic, musical, or professional than others – but what they have in common is that they’re big. MySpace is the ugliest website in the world. It’s like 1997 all over again when you visit it, even after their recent redesign, but teenagers and bands are all on there, so if you’re interested in either group, you actually have something to gain by joining, despite the blinding animations and overflow of crappy images. You can make your social networking website all pretty-looking and efficient but that doesn’t matter much if nobody is there.

The only social networking site for scientists that I’m a member of is Nature Network. It’s not perfect. It’s sometimes hard to find things, and the blogging software is frustrating if you’re used to typing in html, but the site is worthwhile because there are many members and many relevant groups to join and interesting blogs to comment on.

But critical mass isn’t everything either, and there might be a time when another site manages to attract a subpopulation of scientists and claim those for their network. Orkut and Hyves are both popular and successful (non-science) social networks that are open to an international audience, yet Orkut is mostly Brazilian and Hyves is mostly Dutch. I’m on Hyves because that’s where my high school and university friends from Holland all are. They’re slowly starting to seep into the pores of the Facebook network as well, but don’t actively use it as much as they do Hyves.

So while Nature Network might have the critical mass for scientists at the moment, don’t rule out that some of the other social networks might take specific subgroups or disciplines and be THE social networking site for them.Over time, there might also be a certain type of people that prefer NN over the other websites, and it might fall into its own niche. Judging by the groups and blogs, and undoubtedly as a result of its NPG origins, there seem to be a lot of writers and life scientists. I’m not complaining! Maybe the fact that I like it here is that there are others like me.

Over time, there might also be a certain type of people that prefer NN over the other websites, and it might fall into its own niche. Judging by the groups and blogs, and undoubtedly as a result of its NPG origins, there seem to be a lot of writers and life scientists. I’m not complaining! Maybe the fact that I like it here is that there are others like me.

There is no real point to this, I’m just typing out some thoughts so I don’t forget them, and since it was about NN I figured it was worth a blog post.

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Pierre Lindenbaum June 12, 2008 - 9:00 AM

Hi Eva,
A few weeks ago “Deepak”:http://network.nature.com/profile/mndoci sent some invitations to a few of us to join him on “http://twitter.com”:http://twitter.com and “http://friendfeed.com/”:http://friendfeed.com/ .
They quickly both became our networks of choice. Please, have a look at those posts:
* “http://semanticlifescience.wordpress.com/2008/06/11/mining-aggregated-consioussness-stream/”:http://semanticlifescience.wordpress.com/2008/06/11/mining-aggregated-consioussness-stream/
* “http://mndoci.com/blog/2008/06/03/the-online-life-science-community-is-on-a-roll/”:http://mndoci.com/blog/2008/06/03/the-online-life-science-community-is-on-a-roll/
* “http://pbeltrao.blogspot.com/2008/06/why-does-friendfeed-work.html”:http://pbeltrao.blogspot.com/2008/06/why-does-friendfeed-work.html
* “http://plindenbaum.blogspot.com/2008/06/pubmed-impact-factors-sorting-and.html”:http://plindenbaum.blogspot.com/2008/06/pubmed-impact-factors-sorting-and.html

Ian Mulvany June 12, 2008 - 10:21 AM

There is a tension between the providers of social software, and the way we behave. When I move from one city to another my social network changes as that’s very location dependent, but when I do have that network set up for the most part, I don’t expect restrictions on where I can go in that city with my friends. For sure, some friends of mine might not be caught dead in the palace bar, they only drink in the stag’s head, but I could drop in with my palace friends for a quick pint and catch up on news.
On the internet distance only affects us on the scale of timezones, and even there our tail of interaction is much broader. Our changing activities very much determine the networks we hold on to. I no longer practice science, but I’m still in contact with my old climbing buddies. However a big change at the moment is that the places we go on the internet still don’t play well with each other in the same way that they do in real life.
I hope that truly mobile social networks will emerge, and I think they will be driven my our address books on our phones. First we will have real time tracking of the location of our contacts (to the point that mutual permission is granted), and then this will start to seep into awareness of location on the web. It’s something that has been faces before, with IM and VOIP walled gardens. So far only email and phone numbers and physical mail addresses don’t have this problem, and perhaps for that reason those will be the media that crack the problem first.
It’s natural to think that how we connect our activities should be independent of

Corie Lok June 12, 2008 - 2:02 PM

Hi Eva, thanks for this post. Lately, there’s definitely been an explosion of social networking sites for scientists…particularly life scientists. It’s an interesting time to be working on NN, that’s for sure!
Just a FYI, you’re not the only one who has complained about how hard it can be to find things here. We’re working on ways to improve and simplify our navigation so that will hopefully fix things. And we’re working on ways to better connect our site with others on the Web so that we can work with sites like Friendfeed.

Eva Amsen June 12, 2008 - 5:52 PM

I am on both those sites. But on Twitter most of my contacts are *not* scientists, so I barely mention science on there. On friendfeed most of my contacts *are* scientists, but I am just not really getting into it. I don’t really need to see people’s links and tweets again that I *already* see in my Google Reader (more informatively) and on Twitter (where I see about 40 other people as well).

Eva Amsen June 12, 2008 - 5:54 PM

Ian, yes, mobility does seem to be where these things are headed. I already use Twitter to find people in the city at any given time.

Eva Amsen June 12, 2008 - 5:55 PM

Corie, I’m not being very constructive though =) I wish I could give an actual useful suggestion, but I just know that things are harder to find on Nature Network than on some other places. Nowhere is perfect, though.

Pierre Lindenbaum June 12, 2008 - 10:14 PM

that is *exactly* what i was thinking:
… what is the use of joining friendfeed as I can read all my rss feeds on google reader ? But I tried it and i really enjoy the experience.
Cameron Neylon has just posted a new entry on his blog about FF: “http://blog.openwetware.org/scienceintheopen/2008/06/12/friendfeed-for-scientists-what-why-and-how/”:http://blog.openwetware.org/scienceintheopen/2008/06/12/friendfeed-for-scientists-what-why-and-how/
I cite his post :
“….Firstly the commenting facilities enable rapid and effective conversations and secondly there was rapid adoption by a group of life scientists which has created a community…. This helps you to find new people you may be interested in following. It also helps people to find you. As well as this items with comments or likes then get popped up to the top of the feed so items that are generating a conversation keep coming back to your attention. These conversations can happen very fast. Some conversations baloon within minutes, most take place at a more sedate pace over a couple of hours or days but it is important to be aware that many people are live most of the time.”
the discussion about this post continues “here on FriendFeed”:http://friendfeed.com/e/b0109ace-772e-ea95-5db8-eca094354e6d/Friendfeed-for-scientists-What-why-and/ !

Eva Amsen June 13, 2008 - 12:55 AM

Yeah, I saw Cameron’s post… in Google Reader…
I just want a site where I can log in once in a while and see what people have been up to (“network snapshot” on here is great), and FriendFeed goes *way* too fast.
Plus, it’s only a matter of time before my other (and, I’m sorry, but _actual_) friends join FriendFeed and I have to look at a page that intersperses science discussion with baby photos and people’s favourite bands. So then I’d have to maintain TWO accounts to avoid that happening. I already have a similar thing going on in Twitter, and OH, that’s another thing I don’t like about FriendFeed: it shows all @replies to my Twitter friends in there. Things I say to people who nobody on my FriendFeed list even know. It’s just clutter (and I’m actually going to remove my Twitter updates from FriendFeed, now that I think about it)

Eva Amsen March 12, 2009 - 4:38 PM

I COMPLETELY FORGOT I WROTE THIS! But I still stand by everything I wrote.

Bora Zivkovic March 12, 2009 - 5:48 PM

I completely forgot you wrote this, too 😉 But I agree with it anyway!

steffi suhr March 12, 2009 - 6:18 PM

I keep wondering whether I _want_ everything I’m signed up for to ‘integrate well’. I’m beginning to like the fact that (for me) facebook is for personal stuff, while NN for example is for geekiness. As far as those things don’t go together. You know what I mean.

Henry Gee March 12, 2009 - 6:49 PM

I’ve completely forgotten about everything that anyone ever wrote, but don’t mind me. I’ll just sit in the corner with my bus timetable.

Kristi Vogel March 12, 2009 - 6:50 PM

LOL, Steffi- I’ve thought about the same issue of “integration”, and in general it makes me uncomfortable. Not that it would be catastrophic or detrimental or necessarily damaging to my career or anything … just _uncomfortable_. I know that others have expressed concern about this as well. Some people might desire a seamless integration of all their online selves, but I’m not one of them.

steffi suhr March 12, 2009 - 6:57 PM

That Eva is a clever woman, by the way: here we all are, busily poking around all her old (very good!) blog posts, reading them and commenting on them all over again.. _very_ clever.

Eva Amsen March 12, 2009 - 7:11 PM

Well, I do need to prepare a talk about all this stuff and have NO SLIDES YET so it’s good for me to have everyone talking about it again =)

Craig Rowell March 12, 2009 - 7:45 PM

I have to agree with Stephi. While I set up a NN space on Facebook that does not mean that I want to have everything on I do on NN reflected on my Facebook page or my Twitter account or even LinkedIn. In fact, as much as it is a pain I rather like having the different accounts. I have a compartment (so to speak) for different kinds of information that I want to share with each set of contacts. Plus I get to put my A.D.D. to good use by having so many sites to visit quickly.

Frank Norman March 12, 2009 - 7:58 PM

I had every intention of compartmentalising different sides of my life – work and home – but it just didn’t work out. For a start there are people I know through my work that I also regard as friends. Then I tried having two different Facebook accounts, but people found the “wrong” account and i ended up with friends all mixed up between the two accounts. I ended up merging them.
My biggest struggle is sorting out the flow between these networks. Twitter => Facebook; Twitter => Friendfeed. Blogs/RSS => Friendfeed. But if I do a blog post should I announce it on Twitter? I’ve seen others do that, but then it’ll end up on Friendfeed twice over. Perhaps that doesn’t matter.
I find the personal / professional overlap kind of exciting. There’s a potential there for knowing someone/something new.

Eva Amsen March 12, 2009 - 8:09 PM

Frank, I think FriendFeed can handle duplicates and kind of merges them. (That’s the only positive thing I’ve ever said about FriendFeed!)

Åsa Karlström March 12, 2009 - 8:36 PM

Steffi> I don’t want to. (Integrate that is) but I find that it is happening no mater what I “thought” I wanted. I guess it is good in some sense to remind myself about Facebook* (although I have some kind of private setting so people can’t take part of everything unless they’re my ‘friends’. Still, the status update is for all to read as far as I know so…. ah well…)
Eva>Have you seen the BiomedExperts? That is a site i use for my own personal ego… or maybe to find future collaborators/’helpers with problems I encounter in lab’ since you can see your co-authors on papers and thier co-authors etc. Nice clouds and very visualy appealing (if you are a geek anyway).
I have yet to sign up for FriendFeed and Twitter… have to say I doubt it will happen since I need my time. Although, I am sure some people around me would like twitter for me, it would mean learn to write short and conscise. Not my faves nor strenght really 😉
*Funny enough, I kind of like looking at my ‘friends’ at facebook since it is a truly amazingly diverse group. I never in a million years thought I would know so many different people, from all over the world and doing everything between the sun and here – kind of.

Ralph Lasala March 12, 2009 - 8:43 PM

“I find the personal / professional overlap kind of exciting. There’s a potential there for knowing someone/something new.”
This is one of the cool things about online networking sites — knowing someone/something new (even if only a little bit), beyond one’s own regular encounters.

steffi suhr March 13, 2009 - 7:15 AM

@Ralph: I think you’re just talking about getting to know new people, which obviously is a big plus for social networking – no doubt there.
And yes, it is interesting to learn new things about people you know in a different context. What I was trying to say was that there are just certain things I discuss with one group of people I know and not with another. Kind of like having a discussion with several people at a party and not starting off on a tangent that nobody finds interesting (or can follow), and some might just find plain weird. There’s a time and place for everything, or something like that..

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