Examining The Ties That Bind Us On Facebook

By Justin Lafferty 

What makes someone share a story on Facebook? If the original post comes from a celebrity such as George Takei, maybe it was a funny post. If it comes from a close friend, maybe it’s an announcement. If it’s from a high school classmate they haven’t spoken to in years, maybe it’s something thought-provoking. Dean Eckles, a member of the data science team at Facebook, spoke at Tahoe Snowcial in Nevada about how the connection between users influences how they share on the social network.

Eckles talked about how powerful friendship ties are on Facebook. Most people have tiers of friends on the social network. There are the close friends they speak with regularly, then maybe co-workers and friends they see every now and then, and various degrees down to casual acquaintances.

The name of a friend determines a lot, especially in advertising. Eckles gave the example of a sidebar ad, with and without social context. The ads that said, “(Friend) likes (brand),” and prompted the user to like the page did much better than those without any evidence of friend connection. Eckles said the ads with the friend’s name led to roughly 10 percent more likes. If there were two or more friends, it got even more of a bump in like rates.

Eckles talked about how social cues affect users’ behavior on Facebook:

The kind that we’re most interested in is in-kind peer effects, where your peer’s X-ing causes you to X as well. This could be things like, when you buy a fax machine. There’s peer effects in that because the fax machine isn’t fun to have unless you have someone to send faxes to or receive faxes from. Actually, a fax machine’s not really that fun. But quitting smoking, or sharing a link on Facebook — you’re much more likely to post the link if one of your friends does, perhaps because it just makes you aware of something and you didn’t see that link before, or maybe it changes your beliefs about what the right kind of content is to share on Facebook. If someone’s sharing that, then maybe it’s appropriate to share that kind of stuff.

In terms of sharing content on Facebook, the link between the publisher and the sharer says a lot. Facebook discovered that although users share much more content from close friends, the posts shared from more distant friends are actually more influential. Eckles noted that for a user to share something from a friend with whom they have a weak connection, it must’ve been something truly unique.

Eckles discussed with the crowd the differences between sharing from weak ties and sharing from strong ties, also with regard to social context in Facebook ads:

Before we start to give up on these weak ties, emphasizing strong ties, we’re emphasizing that weak ties expose you to more novel information, because in a sense, we have homophily — many of the things that you are going to be exposed to by your strong ties you would probably find out about anyway, or would do anyway. Whereas weak ties are often longer ties — they’re connections that are in some sense farther away in the social network. So they often expose you to more novel information.

Eckles also gave an example from Thanksgiving 2010, when Facebook prompted 1 percent of U.S. users in American English to post what they’re thankful for. He said it led to a 0.5 percent increase in users sharing what they’re thankful for, unprompted, because their friends who did see the prompt did so.

Readers: How often do you share a link from a friend who you don’t talk with that often?