A Permanent Divide: Articulation of Social Networks?

Continuing on my thoughts following Paul DiMaggio’s visit, about the digital divide. Mobile information access may be one technological element that will mark the divide going forward. But there might be another element that might create a social divide that will be very hard to bridge.

I’m talking about social networks, and in particular, the potential articulation of social networks online.

It’s not only the case that you can see who someone’s friends are, you can figure out how that person is connected to you in 1, 2, 3 or 10 links. Such information could be widely available on the web (already available in LinkedIn, and may become available on Facebook any time). This articulation of social ties may lead to even more favoritism and rich-get-richer in making friends and, say, hiring decisions.

We already know that homophily plays a big role in offline (great overview from Miller McPherson et al.) and online social networks. With the disappearance of web anonymity (on Facebook, almost everyone is the real him or her) it is likely that these networks homophily trends will continue to dominate and even exacerbate.

What does this mean? Employers will have the choice not only to select employees who are friends or from the same alma-mater; they will be able to see how distant an applicant is from them in the social network (and perhaps examine the applicant’s direct social network ties). This is not a digital divide: maybe the technically-weak are not part of online social networks at all yet (a fact that already hurts them), but even when they join the online world and join a social network, their potential immeidiate ties in the virtual world may actually hurt their social advancement because of that new social network selection bias.

And that’s before Facebook even starts “PageRanking” people.

Or, you can take a positive view and claim that if the span of a social network is not that wide (say, a low mean shortest path between each two elements in a fully-connected social graph) such articulation of ties might actually be beneficial to “weaker” nodes in that graph as it will help them connect to more “important” people. Which will it be?

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