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Social media 'bootstrapping' key for growth of new sites

Posted on 07/04/2014

Importing friends and connections from existing social media networks encourages interaction on new sites, suggests a study by scientists at King’s College London. The research also finds that a ‘weaning process’ – whereby a user moves away from copied social links and builds relationships ‘natively’ in the new network is essential for longer lasting user engagement.

The study, led by Dr Nishanth Sastry and his PhD student Mr. Changtao Zhong from the Department of Informatics at King’s College London and collaborators at, UK, University of California, Berkeley, University of Tehran, Iran and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), is to be published and presented as part of the this week’s World Wide Web conference in Korea. 

The authors suggest the findings have strong implications for how web designers can create content-driven communities which maintain user participation.

Many websites try to incorporate a social networking element to enhance user engagement and create active communities. Making a website ‘social’ typically involves linking users together and providing some kind of awareness of their activities to each other. Previous studies have found that social networking aspects facilitate community formation in learning, working, medicine and online games applications.

Website designers have the choice to create either entirely new social networks embedded within the new site, or use ‘friend-finder’ tools from established sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which have now opened up their social graphs to third-party websites.

Dr Sastry said: ‘It takes years to develop a social network. Facebook now has ten years of history behind it. These friend-finding features help users to instantly ‘bootstrap’ a social network on the new site by copying links from their existing network of friends.’

Dr Sastry and colleagues set out to evaluate how such bootstrapping could affect the user community and to what extent copying links contributes to social structure and user engagement as the new website matures. 

They developed an analytical model to map the structure of the social bootstrapping process and analysed data from Pinterest (a photo sharing network) and (a music streaming site), to compare links copied from Facebook with links created natively. 

They found that copying tends to produce a ‘giant connected component’ – meaning that most people are connected to others through a typically short chain of friendship. This process occurs quickly and preserves properties such as reciprocity and clustering, with copied connections seeing higher social interactions. 

‘A copying process is useful to initiate social interaction in the new website, as one may expect,’ said Dr Sastry. ‘Friends copied from Facebook create a familiar community with strong structural features – dense and highly clustered – with friendships that are reciprocated. Most people are connected to others in their networks through short chains of friendship.’

However, the need for copying diminishes as users become more active and influential. Such users tend to create links natively to users who may be more similar to them than their Facebook friends and to those that share similar interests. The authors suggest a ‘weaning’ process, whereby a user moves away from copied social links and builds relationships natively in the new network, is essential for longer lasting user engagement.

‘Our findings give new insights into understanding how bootstrapping from established social networks can help engage new users by enhancing social interactivity,’ said Dr Sastry.

‘Both reciprocity and clustering are shown to be important for social interactions, with social bootstrapping successfully promoting user engagement. The findings have strong implications for the design of new websites with built-in social media elements.’ 


Notes to editors

‘Social Bootstrapping: How Pinterest and Social Communities Benefit by Borrowing Links from Facebook’ 

Graphical illustration available

The research was supported by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Basic Science Research Program through the National Research Foundation of Korea funded by the Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning.

For further information about the International Worldwide Web Conference visit: 

Dr Sastry is available for interview. Please contact Anna Mitchell, PR Manager (Arts & Sciences) on +44 207 848 3092 or 

For further information about King's please visit our 'King's in Brief' page.

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