Someone to call on: studying social ties in action

Carolina Mattsson, Drew Margolin, Stefan Wojcik, David Lazer


Theory and methods in social networks have always been closely intertwined, and digital traces are reshaping the empirical data available on social ties. Most consequential for our understanding of social networks – but often overlooked – is that mobile phones, social media platforms, and other such sources keep a record of behavior at a level of granularity that lets us place social ties in context (Eagle, Pentland, Lazer, 2009). This means we can study social ties as they exist at particular moments in time, and how they affect behavior in particular situations. To do so, we must re-imagine how we collect, analyze, and interpret social network data. We propose a methodology based on collecting “hybrid” data on social ties in the context of a situation where those ties come into play. By measuring both behavioral and survey-solicited aspects of social ties at a particular point in time, we can relate these ties to relevant contextual outcomes. Our study collected “hybrid” data about social ties alongside behavioral outcomes and contextual factors with respect to the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15th, 2013. Context-specific hybrid data on social ties are rich, complex, and messy; this complicates both analysis and interpretation. For analysis, we bring in statistical learning techniques developed for behavioral prediction in data science (Hastie, Tibshirani & Friedman, 2013). These methods are built to handle complicated data, and they offer a useful analytical lens. We find that we can learn something about key social actions during the Boston Marathon bombings, such as providing help, from prior features of respondents’ social ties. On the other hand, the same variables are entirely uninformative for ties sharing information about the bombings. Recent developments in social network theory give us a way to interpret the results of this kind of analysis. There is growing recognition that defining social ties as simple and static may be misguided. Social ties seem to matter to us mostly in relation to the situation we find ourselves in so who people pay attention to or rely on can shift rapidly with changes in context (Small, 2017). Moreover, there is a resurgence in considering carefully exactly how we define social ties (Kitts & Quintane, 2019). Particular role relations, recent interactions, or even the relative location between people might become especially salient in some contexts. We find that all three of these factors independently affected behavior in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. However, role relations and contextual factors lose relevance later in the day; prior interaction is the most informative for non-immediate mobile calling. Our methodology builds on the idea that knowing something about social ties can help us understand the behavior of individuals towards their alters in specific contexts. We can study this by considering the activation of social ties in different situations. To do so, we collect data on contextual social actions together with data on relevant social ties from both behavioral and survey sources. We find different “facets” of social ties become relevant in different contexts.

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