Social networks don't necessarily widen a user's contact base

By February 27, 2012
Map and social network

Internet users are not necessarily looking to get in touch with other users all over the world. Rather they are often looking to contact other people online with whom they can share an interest in what's going on in a particular geographical region.


The advent of social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn has broken down the geographical barriers between Internet users worldwide as far as information dissemination is concerned. We might therefore assume that users would widen their range of contacts to people outside their own countries or regions. But this is only partly true. The fact is that users continue to get together by geographical area, and especially in line with their particular interest in a specific location. This what researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts have discovered.

Local, national and international groups

The researchers arrived at these conclusions by using the micro-blogging platform Twitter as the framework for their study. They characterised groups of tweeters according to firstly their interest in topics reported in New York Times articles and secondly tweeters’ locations. Analysing 521,733 tweets and retweets about articles, posted by 223,950 users, they discovered the existence of network clusters according to the subjects of the articles. Three groups stood out clearly from the others; those interested in local, national or international information.

Not only ideological groupings


The research team made another discovery: in addition to being influenced by geographical location, social networks also have a political dimension. They noticed that there were subgroups within the groups interested in information at national level. The national group contained subgroups which were specifically political (liberal or conservative) and one that was more neutral. Conclusions are mixed as to what this means for society as a whole. NECSI President Yaneer Bar-Yam commented: "For those who are concerned about the polarisation of society into liberal and conservative camps, the results have both positive and negative connotations. There are specific subgroups that are polarised into opposing camps, but often associations are local, national and cosmopolitan."

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