The Role of Reciprocation in Social Network Formation, with an Application to Blogging

In a new working paper, Caterina Giannetti and I used data collected from LiveJournal to follow the activity of a panel of bloggers over more than a year. Our aim was to measure how much of the activity of bloggers was actually social networking, and how much really was journalism.

We measured how many of a blogger’s new readers were gained through reciprocation (they read me because I read them), vs. what was gained through other activities, such as posting blog entries, making comments, joining communities, etc. Our results confirmed that activity and reciprocation both helped in growing one’s social network. This means that for a blogger to be successful, it helps to make efforts in initiating relations with others.

The paper is one of the first to follow the activity of bloggers over time along with their audience. Our analysis also relies on an original theoretical model, an adaptation of a standard capital investment model along the lines of the work of Glaeser, Laibson and Sacerdote (2002).*  We contribute with our research to a better understanding of social network formation by exploiting fine-grained data collected online.

We expect our approach to be of use when comparing different kind of social networks; those that are primarily affinity-based, where reciprocity is important, vs. those that are primarily activity-based, where reciprocity would play less of a role. Our work provides a conceptual and analytical tool to better understand variety in social media and locate its different manifestations along the range between social networking, which is affinity-based, and media activities, which are oriented towards collecting and diffusing information.

Already, we were able to evidence differences between popular and less popular blogs in that respect, though not when comparing Russian and English-speaking blogs. We do not have references points for how important reciprocation turned out to be on LiveJournal. However, we think that LiveJournal is merely a point on a continuum that spans from Twitter to Facebook in terms of how important activity (media aspect) is compared to reciprocation (social networking aspect). We would indeed expect low levels of reciprocation among Twitterers, while links on Facebook would have a high probability to be reciprocated. Confirmation of our intuition awaits further study.

Edward L. Glaeser, David Laibson and Bruce Sacerdote (2002), “An economic approach to social capital“, The Economic Journal, pp. 437-458.

The article is available at SSRN and RePEc.

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3 thoughts on “The Role of Reciprocation in Social Network Formation, with an Application to Blogging

  1. I am particularly interested in your hypothesis about Twitter in terms of low expectations for reciprocation.

    Facebook demands reciprocation such that you cannot be a friend to someone unless they agree. It is an all-or-nothing reciprocation.

    With Twitter you can follow anyone and whether they follow you back or not. So, in that sense, yes, I suppose the expectation inherently would be lower for reciprocation. When a “common person” follows celebrities (Charlie Sheen, Ashton Kucher, Oprah, Obama, ad nauseum) I would think expectation is low for reciprocation, however, in cases where you are following someone with similar interests, who works in a similar field, has followers (and follows) in common- I think (perhaps incorrectly) that expectations for reciprocation should be higher.

    This goes to the motivation for following. There are certain accounts that I follow that say such funny or inspirational things (Sr. Ken Robinson, Darth Vader) that I could conceivably just sit and listen to and would want them to broadcast to me. In other cases, however, I want to have a conversation. I would think that I could have something to offer back to them and would think that in the name of developing a personal learning network that reciprocation is a courtesy and dare I say, expected.

    1. Dear Giulia, yes, I totally agree with your views re. reciprocation being a function of one’s expectations of reciprocation, so that indeed, if reciprocation is expected, then one will observe only reciprocated links, since people would not “friend” someone if they did not expect the link to be reciprocated.

      So I would say that our work does not so much tell us “what is the likelihood to obtain reciprocation on LJ” as “what is the norm re. reciprocation on LJ”. Note we make a distinction between Russian and US blogs, as well as between popular and less popular ones, so we go some way towards checking your point (though we could certainly go further in distinguishing between types of blogs… maybe an idea for future data collection!).

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