Who do you know?

The Usual Suspects (Images: IMDB)

An interesting thought occurred to me while reading Charles Kadushin’s Understanding Social Networks today. Engaged in a discussion on one aspect of network theory, he references a study by Killworth and Bernard in which they planned a survey intending to finding out how many people their subjects know. “‘Know’ is defined as having had contact within the last two years” (Kadushin, 2012, p. 110). My immediate reaction was that this was a very vague way to trying to determine whether or not you know someone.

Leaving aside the esoteric question of whether or not you can ever actually “know” someone. I thought it might be interesting to try to determine how I would come to an understanding of how many people I know.

I started simple. I figure that I know (or ought to know) my family. Luckily for me, my family isn’t too big. There’s my immediate family, my aunts, uncles and cousins, and those who have married into the family, as well as their extended family, whom I have met and would probably be able to pick me out of a police line-up.

After that, it got a whole lot harder. Here’s my short-list of groups:

  • Close family friends
  • Neighbours and community members
  • Work (colleagues, clients, suppliers)
  • School (colleagues, professors and administrators)
  • Social (sports teams, social clubs)
  • Online (social meida, blogs)

Then I started to realize that there may be people who I would still consider a contact but I haven’t connected with in a long time. A great example are some friends I recently got in touch with from Australia. These are guys that I went to high-school with back in 1993-94 who I last spoke with in 2000 and who, through the wonders of Facebook, I wrote to last month and, despite the length of time we haven’t communicated, were happy to hear from me (or so they say) and would like to get together with to catch up when I’m down there. Although they wouldn’t fit the Killworth and Bernard criteria, I would still count these as people that I know.

Finally, I thought, what about people that I know who don’t know me? I can think of several examples, specifically from my work life, of people (let’s say speakers at conferences), who I have had dealings with and who I would consider that I know, but they may not say the same about me. Maybe they would recognize my name, or my face. However, taken out of context they wouldn’t be able to put the two together. Would that still be considered someone I “know?” This type of “knowing” someone is further illustrated through social networks like twitter, where you follow someone and get to know them (in a certain way) through their outgoing communication, but who may not follow you back.

It’s certainly a daunting task to determine who you know. I can appreciate the challenge that Killworth and Bertnard had to deal with in order to determine the parameters of their study.  Through this process, I have determined that there is no way that I could actually come up with a specific number of people that I know. This is for two reasons: 1) because the criteria for determining who I know is impossible to determine and 2) because I’m limited by my memory. I’m sure that even when thinking about my family, I’ve left out certain people who I would definitely say that I know, but I won’t remember that until I see them or hear from them next.

Offline sources:

Kadushin, C. (2012). Understanding social networks : Theories, concepts, and findings. New York: Oxford University Press


16 responses to “Who do you know?

  1. Great topic. I’m also thinking about Kadushin stating that the theory that we can only hold 150 relationships is outdated now because of the internet. So therefore, I think the boundaries of what defines ‘knowing’ someone has certainly stretched with the internet. And knowing today, because of the online environment, is so different than it as 10 years ago.

    • Completely agree with you. I wonder whether the depth of our ability to “know” someone may also have changed. I draw parallels here to those studies that say we “know more” because we have online knowledge tools or we “know less” because we have access to all this information so we don’t have to retain as much.

  2. I think that 150 people might have been wrong back in the day, too, at least for urban dwellers. You’d have your coworkers, family, friends, neighbours, pharmacist, doctor, cashiers … but of course, perhaps knowing someone and being pals are very different things.

  3. Sean, Rebecca, I’ve read in one article that in the end of the 20th century the number of people city dwellers knew was already around 250. Social media empowered people to connect even more and right now the number of people an individual knows is 350-500.

    • I imagine that it really depends on what group you’re assessing. I think that my thoughts on the numbers being quite low depends a lot on who I am, where I live, what I do, where I go to school, and the classes I’ve chosen to take.

  4. You make an interesting point about who you ‘know’ versus ‘know of’. The world is definitely that much smaller with various social media… I follow Clay Shirky on Twitter… but of course, he has no clue as to who I am (other than a statistic on his follower count)… what does that do to our degrees of separation I wonder…

    • Great point. Like many things that we’re studying, there are so many shades of each idea that it’s difficult to feel really sure of anything. I guess this is what makes it such an interesting challenge!

  5. This is a great conversation. I struggle with this whole topic because I find myself asking what criteria determines if and how we really know someone? The internet has certainly made it easier to seek out, connect or “Friend” someone but does that mean we really “know” them and that they “know” us? Is quantity more important or quality?

    • Cathy, what do you think should qualify? I figure you have to have spent some time with that person, know more than just their name and what they do, and there must be some kind of phenomenological experience that you share. My original idea for this post was to try to determine these factors but it was too daunting.

      • I think we’re on the same page, Sean…. if I think of someone as ‘someone I know’, I would have to have some sort of a ‘bond’ with them (not necessarily my bff, but someone I registered something with… perhaps someone I went to an art lesson with and shared something in common… or opposite)… A bod stronger than “I think I saw her on the LRT last week”… Your definition of a phenomenological experience shared is way cooler and makes the point =)

      • Maybe there is something encrypted in the act of knowing someone. The strongest bonds we share are those with people who know something about us that maybe only the two of us know. The more people who know that thing, the less encryption is necessary. Therefore, once we get to the point where what we share with others is common knowledge (like the things we share public ally on Twitter) the less we can say we know those other people, even though we may be sharing a lot with them.

      • You referenced phenomenology! Well played Sean, well played. But I agree with your difficulty in determining a definition for knowing someone. There are levels to knowing someone and different people will have different criteria. I could argue there are people in my life that I’ve “known” for years, but some days I feel I don’t know them at all.

  6. All depends what the criteria of the “relationship” is. By 1980s or earlier standards I bet the quality of interaction face to face has decreased whereas nowadays we have very small little bytes of interaction with many more people than those previously did. I almost see some sort of power law here where nx = total relationships. n being the number of people interacted with and x being the quality of interaction.
    In the 1940s it might have been 150(100) = 15,000 while today we may reach 1,000 people but the quality of contact and knowledge of them beyond what they see online is at around 50. Subjective but you get the point. This equals 50,000 meaning despite knowing or being in touch with 850 more people your overall interaction with the world has only gone up by two or three times not 850.
    You’d have to do some more thinking, but I’m pretty sure I’m not to something here that will make me no money someday.

    • I think you’re on to something here. The numbers of interactions have probably had something to do with increased urbanization, too. There are more opportunities for more interactions and relationships with more individuals. The trend probably just became more inflated with online interactions.

      • Good point. When I head back to my wife’s town, I’m amazed how everyone knows everyone. However, I’m also amazed how little they know in details or there’s gaps because not everyone has internet or cares much. Much more rumour-based, or heard through someone else.

        Also, I’m using small-town as an example because it feels closest to blasts from the pasts in terms of networking, I’m always amazed through my ball team how I can be a connector of sorts between different silos or closed networks.

        Say I know someone on the rec board, but because of history one family kind of hates another. I therefore know more people beyond just names because I carry no baggage.

        Newcomers also have a harder time in this country, but at the same time carry with them less of the closed networks. They often connect with each other and once one connects with a closed network, they soon become more connected than the established groups.

        It’s very fascinating and seems so random from person to person depending on their personality and desires.

  7. Pingback: 10 Master Ideas of Social Networks: brought to you by MACT 2013 Cohort! | Tanya's blog about everything

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