Simmelian backbones in social networks

There’s growing understanding that many, perhaps most, social networks have a structure with two main parts: a central, richly connected part sometimes called the hairball, and a set of more isolated and much smaller parts sometimes called whiskers. A growth process that reproduces this well is the forest fire model which, roughly speaking, models a new person joining one of the whiskers, and then slowly building connections via friends of friends that connect them into the hairball, and so eventually causethe whole whisker to be absorbed into the hairball. The hairball is therefore the result of the accretion of a large number of whiskers that overlap increasingly richly.

The problem, from a social network analysis point of view, is that the hairball, as its name suggests, is a big mess of overlapping communities. For reasons I’ve written about before, applying clustering or cut techniques to the hairball doesn’t do very well because there are many “long” edges between communities (since the whole graph is typically small world).

One of the talks at ASONAM 2013 provides some hope of being able to look at the structure of the hairball, using the insight that triangles are more useful than edges. The likelihood of triangles with two “long” edges is low, so this seems to be a good way of distinguishing which edges lie within communities; and, of course, there have been social theories positing triangles as an important pattern of social interaction for a century, most recently in the book Tribal Leadership, which points out that the advantage of a triangle relationship is that, when two people fall out, the third person can mediate.

Roughly speaking, the trick is to consider how many triangles each pair of nodes share and leave connections between them only when this number is large enough. The paper shows some nice examples of how this works on real-world datasets, with some convincing evidence that it does the right thing.

This approach is in contrast to previous work that has tried to peel the hairball by removing the whiskers and their edges into the hairball, and then removing the new whiskers that this reveals, and so on. While this peeling approach seems sensible and tries, in a way, to undo the hypothetical formation process, it is much less clear that it can get the order right. A “clustering” technique that is order-independent seems inherently more attractive.

The reference is: Bobo Nick, Conrad Lee, Pádraig Cunningham and Ulrik Brandes. Simmelian Backbones, ASONAM 2013; and there’s a version here:


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