Email Shows Your Hierarchy of Friends


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Following the recent news that Facebook reveals about four degrees of separation among networks of friends, new research has come out demonstrating a similar phenomenon at work within a person's email. Northwestern University researchers Stefan Wuchty and Brian Uzzi have published a new study indicating that the contents of your email inbox reflect your real life ties to the people in your life.

Using email data collected from nearly 1.5 million non-distribution list emails from 1,052 managers of a "typical professional services company that offers various forms of consulting to services and clients," Wuchty and Uzzi were able to distinguish that variables such as response time and even quick assessments of emails reflected self-reported ties of "real life" social networks. Further, the study demonstrates that, despite what curmudgeons may drone on and on about, electronic communication really hasn't changed the way we interact with each other at all.

Of key importance is the understanding that e-communication mirrors patterns of face-to-face communication in regard to different types of relationships while the availability of electronic communication channels drastically reduced communication costs and extended our potential number of and reach to contacts, the email dynamics we observed suggests that fundamental patterns of friendship and professional connections continue to operation in their classical fashion. How these dynamics aggregate to change human dynamics is putatively dependent on the contextual basis of our findings.

Another telling observation to come from this research is that, similar to the study that Facebook conducted, email reveals approximately a similar degree of separation between participants in the study:

Pretty fascinating stuff, given all the recent decries that email is outdated or, worse, dead.