What makes online ties sustainable? A research design proposal to analyze online social networks.

Recently we heard more and more that online social networking plattforms don’t really work – Alexa teaches us, that people tend to sign up for MySpace, Facebook or openBC, but plattform providers have the hardest time to keep the network alive: people tend to sign up, but don’t or only infrequently come back to their profile.

This made my co-author Thomas Langenberg, EPFL Lausanne in Switzerland, and me start to think about the question: What makes online ties sustainable? We came up with a reasearch design that looks at four different phases of a life cycle of online ties.

Here is the abstract of our paper:

Recently, the Pew Internet & American Life Project published a study about the number of social relations people maintain online and the omnipresent question was raised again: are actual face-to-face contacts declining over time and are they replaced by online social interactions. Our virtual life is scattered in online profiles across sites such as openBC.com, Friendster.com, Match.com or MySpace.com. There are currently more than 400 different online social networking sites – with new sites popping up every day. Building on existing factors of persistence and sustainability of network ties in general, we address the key research questions: Which factors lead to the creation, maintenance, decay and reconnection of online network ties? Our research draws on prominent issues in the social network literature, which address the gap between research on offline and online social networks. We examine individual, dyadic, structural and content-related characteristics to understand how and why actors in different phases of their life cycle turn to online ties. Within the presented research framework, we derive propositions and develop a research design to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative network data. The overall goal is to develop recommendations on how online social networks can become sustainable over time, and we develop questions and avenues for further research.

We came up with the following typology of online vs. offline:

Social Networks Typology

You can download the full paper on the Working Paper website of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard.

Also: check out my entry on the Program on Networked Governance Blog.

Interesting post: “Why social networks fail” over at Tristan Louis’ weblog.


About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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