ON THE SOCIAL WEB
by Sarita Yardi
The social Web is a set of ties that enable people to socialize online, a phenomenon that has existed since the early days of the Internet in environments like IRC, MUDs, and Usenet (e.g. 4, 12). Peo- ple used these media in much the same way they do now: to communicate with existing friends
and to meet new ones. The fundamental difference was the scale, scope, and diversity of participation.
A Theory of Technical Capital
This research is focused on a particular dimension in teens’ relationships, which we call technical capital. Technical capital is a variation
on social capital which is a measurement of access an individual may
have to resources embedded in relationships with network members
[ 3, 5, 10]. We are measuring technical capital as a function of teens’
relationships with not only parents, but also siblings, extended family,
friends, teachers, and community members. Technical capital refers to
availability of technical resources in a network, and the mobilization
of these resources in ways that can positively impact access to information and upward mobility. This definition builds on Pierre
Bourdieu’s notion of technical capital as a subset of cultural capital,
based on any broad skill or educational level reached [ 3]. (Paul
Resnick’s Socio Technical capital refers to a framework for evaluating
technology-mediated social relations.)
The process of measuring technical capital draws on an approach
from the social sciences called ego-network analysis. “Ego” refers to the
person being studied, “alter” refers to the people he or she knows, and
“tie” refers to the relationship between them. A resource generator is an
instrument for generating names and ties to alters and contains questions about the people that ego knows and the strength of ego’s tie with
those people. Questions in a technical capital instrument might
• If you have a problem with computers or technology, whom do you
go to for help?
• How is it the other way around? Are there also people who come to
you for advice regarding problems they have with computers or
• Suppose you had to borrow some small piece of technology, like a
cell phone or an mp3 player. Whom would you ask?
• Suppose someone asked to borrow a large item from you, like a
laptop. Whom would you trust the most to lend it to?
Participants are asked to list names of people they know for each question and then to articulate their relationship to each person and how
close they are to the person. From this set of data points, a network of
ego’s technical ties can be drawn.
Ties act as information transmission lines in a social network;
access to novel and diverse information varies with the level of
homophily—the tendency to associate with people who are similar—
in the network. For many issues, access to just one strong tie may be
sufficient, rather than relying on an additive effect through access to
For social Web users, this has implications for broadening participation among emerging populations, increasing access to information and
resources, and promoting more diverse interactions. For social Web
researchers, this opens doors for conducting analyses of large datasets
on the Web, but also challenges us to contextualize these datasets in
rich, detailed descriptions about what people are doing and why.
My own interest is in social networks and the science of networks
in general. These are two emerging fields that are typically discipli-narily split between the School of Interactive Computing and the
School of Computer Science at Georgia Tech. Network science
includes large-scale analyses of network data while social computing
research involves implementing design interventions and employing a
variety of methods, often ethnographic, to analyze them. Combined,
we can understand what people are doing online and why with
unprecedented scale and depth.
One focus of my research has been on teen participation online,
measured as a function of teens’ relationships with parents, siblings,
extended family, friends, teachers, and community members. The
integration of the social Web into teens’ everyday lives echoes the
growing pains of every new media that has come before it. In the
1960s, teens’ communication through the home telephone disrupted
family routines and rituals. In 2009, teens’ communication through
the social Web displaces earlier forms of teen-parent communication.
Teens are living out their social lives online but they are still adolescents in the physical world, living at home and being raised by their
parents. There is very little research to date on the role of parents and
parenting in teens’ use of social media and how teens’ behavior and
attitudes are influenced by their parents.
We are building a set of Web-based tools and running a series of
longitudinal design studies in which teens build their own social networks for an audience of parents, siblings, peers, and community
members. The goal of this research is to understand how teens’ attitudes toward technical competency are formed and to encourage
them to develop more positive attitudes. Many teens enjoy spending
time on the Internet, but they often don’t connect these activities with
skills they can learn and careers they can pursue. We are exploring
how network models that have been shown to exist in many real-world large-scale networks can be mapped to real-world peer social
status’ to determine which participants and social groups are influential and why. The challenge in this research is in mapping quantitative
measurements of interactions based on network traffic to qualitative
analyses of social relations; it is easy to know what people are doing in
the networks, but it is harder to know why.