Time was, any start-up with even the vaguest connection to the 'social' buzzword would have an army of venture capitalists knocking down their doors with the offers of money. Indeed, it's the idea that social ties can provide advertisers with more effective ways to target their message that has seen the likes of Facebook achieve massive valuations.
But what if these social ties aren't as effective as we might assume? That's the conclusion of a group of researchers from Delft University of Technology. Are friends, they wonder, overrated?
Christian Doerr and his colleagues have been studying the impact of social ties on Digg – which may not enjoy the buzz it did in its heyday, but still represents a useful example of how users engage with content on a social network.
Doerr and his group wanted to study what impact friendship had on the popularity of any given story on Digg – and whether friends were a critical component of stories getting promoted to Digg's front page.
Users of the site can vote up content they find interesting, and see what other stories their friends have voted up too. Indeed around 180 stories per day get enough votes to be deemed popular, at which point they're featured on Digg's front page, at which point the can go viral.
In examining which stories went viral, the researchers looked at 10 million stories from two million users over a four-year period, 200,000 of which achieved a critical mass.
"The impact of the friendship relations on the overall functioning and outcome of the social network is actually surprisingly low,” Doerr and his colleagues reported.
So while users with similar interests and physical locations could be seen forming friendships, they showed little sign of following up on what their friends were doing.
“Users with even a nearly identical overlap in interests react on average only with a probability of two percent to information propagated and received from friends,” the researchers note.
Furthermore, of the stories that became popular, friendships were only important in driving popularity in about half of all cases – and even then, they needed a large of random users to vote stories up to the extent they made Digg's front page.
“The importance of friends and the friend network in the propagation of information is less than originally perceived,” they concluded.
Such behaviour is a far cry from the marketing message often pushed out by social networks, who argue that peer group recommendation makes a uniquely powerful way to reach consumers.
The research was published on the ArXiv academic paper [pdf] repository.
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