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This chapter is from the book Who we talk to

Who we talk to

Most of our communication is with the people closest to us

We like to think that we talk to a wide and diverse set of people, but the reality is that we talk to the same, small group of people again and again. Research shows that people have consistent communication with between 7 and 15 people, but that most conversations are with our five strongest ties. We communicate with the same 5 to 10 people 80 percent of the time.2 Keller Fay found that 27 percent of our conversations are with our spouse/partner, 25 percent are with a family member, and 10 percent are with a best friend. That’s 62 percent of our conversations with the people closest to us. Only 5 percent of our conversations are with acquaintances, and only 2 percent are with strangers. The remaining 31 percent is with the rest of the people in our social network.12

Research shows that people use social networks primarily to strengthen the bonds with their strong ties, and secondarily to build relationships with weak ties. When we looked at how many different people members communicated with directly on Facebook every week, including private messages, chats, wall posts, and likes and comments on status updates, we saw that the average was just 4 people. When we looked at how many different people they communicated with every month, it was only 6 people. This is despite the fact that these people are checking Facebook almost every day.18 Other research has shown that the more people see each other in person or talk on the phone, the more they communicate online.19

We can map how frequently we communicate with others onto our social network structure:

Figure 1 We communicate more with the people toward the center of our social network, the people we are emotionally closest to.

Who is listening to us changes what we talk about

Who we talk to online has a large impact on what we talk about. Many people think carefully before posting status updates. Sometimes they have an explicit audience in mind for the post and need to consider whether it will be interesting or offending to the rest of the people they are connected to. People are very conscious of being seen to be communicating information others will find interesting, funny, or useful. As they usually see only positive feedback, for example “likes” or comments on Facebook posts, it’s hard for them to know what other people find valuable. For many people the only way is to look at posts that receive no feedback, assume people didn’t find it interesting, and factor the characteristics of that post into future decisions about whether to post something. Sometimes people post updates broadly, as receiving serendipitous replies outweighs any risk of communicating uninteresting information to others.

Figure 2 We communicate differently to explicit groups of friends compared with larger groups of people.

When we talk in public, we’re very careful about what we say. For example, online public ratings tend to be disproportionately positive when they’re linked to our real identity. This is especially true when the other party involved can reciprocate. When people post anonymously, their ratings tend to be almost 20 percent lower than when they use their real names. When ratings are not visible to the party being rated, people give negative reviews more frequently.20

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