Socio-spatial properties of online social networks

Some social scientists have suggested that the advent of fast long-distance travel and cheap online communication tools might have caused the "death of distance": as described by Frances Cairncross, the world appears shrinking as individuals connect and interact with each other regardless of the geographic distances which separates them. Unfortunately, the lack of reliable geographic data about large-scale social networks has hampered research on this specific problem.

However, the recent growing popularity of location-based services such as Foursquare and Gowalla has unlocked large-scale access to where people live and who their friends are, making possible to understand how distance and friendship ties relate to each other.

In a recent paper which will appear at the upcoming ICWSM 2011 conference we study the socio-spatial properties arising between users of three large-scale online location-based social networks. We discuss how distance still matters: individuals tend to create social ties with people living nearby much more likely than with persons further away, even though strong heterogeneities still appear across different users.

In fact, we discover how about 40% of social connections between users are shorter than 100 km, even though there are significant different across users, with some of them exhibiting mainly short-distance ties and others having friends at larger scales.

A similar results holds for triplets of mutually connected friends: these social triangles span a wide range of geographic distances, with some of them within a couple of kilometers and others across continents.

Finally, we discuss how users with more friends tend to have social ties and social triangles on a bigger scale than people with a few connections. This suggests that the effect of spatial distance should be balanced with some notion of individual status: longer social ties will appear mainly towards important individual, while a user will connect to an unimportant one only if they are close to each other.


In summary, in our work we demonstrate how

  • spatial distance is still shaping social connections, even in the online realm
  • individuals exhibit strong differences in their socio-spatial properties

This exciting and novel thread of research may foster a new understanding of how people are affected by the space where they live: the rise of the location-based Web appears promising and full of potential applications.

Socio-spatial Properties of Online Location-based Social Networks
Salvatore Scellato, Anastasios Noulas, Renaud Lambiotte, Cecilia Mascolo. - In Proceedings of Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM 2011). Barcelona, Spain, July 2011. [PDF]


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