Facebook "Frenemies Like These": trustworthiness of advice on Social Media

MIT Sloan Assistant Prof. Renée Gosline

Log on to Facebook or Twitter any time of day, and you’ll find a familiar scene: people asking questions. “In a book rut – can anyone recommend a good novel?” “Boyfriend and I had a fight – should I dump him?” or “Am shopping for a new suit — which color would look best on me?”

Social media has made it easier than ever before to ask questions of our friends, acquaintances, and other contacts. In some ways this is a good thing because we have more information to weigh, analyze, and consider before we make a decision. But in other ways, all this information and all these opinions can result in cognitive overload. It’s like going into the cereal aisle at the grocery store for every single decision.

Except for the fact that when we’re trying to make a decision, the ways in which we heed advice from our social ties varies widely depending on the circumstance and the content of the advice. According to my latest research,* people trust the opinions of strangers more than they expect to; they trust their closest ties – best friends and siblings – only when they give certain advice; and the judgments of acquaintances, relationships that are often fraught with mistrust, matter a great deal to us in certain situations.

In a series of experiments, my colleagues, Jeff Lee of Harvard Business School and Breagin Riley at Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management, and I found that when we receive negative feedback – “That suit doesn’t look good on you,” for example – we trust our close ties and strangers the most, and we trust acquaintances the least. But when we get positive feedback – “You did a great job at your salsa dance performance” – we trust acquaintances the most, and our close ties the least.

Why don’t you trust your best friend if she told you you danced well? Why would you trust a stranger if he told you your suit doesn’t look right? The reason is what I’ve taken to calling the “Frenemy Effect.” A frenemy is a combination friend and enemy and refers to a relationship that is outwardly affable, but is simultaneously competitive.

Ever see that movie Mean Girls with Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey? In that film, the cool clique – The Plastics – were all each others’ frenemy. They appeared to be friends, but in fact were rivals and didn’t like each other very much. Now of course we’re not all still caught up in high school drama, but we all have acquaintances: co-workers, neighbors, high school pals, who qualify as frenemies.

We humans are in a constant competition with each other for social capital. We perceive that there are limited resources: only one person can be the most popular, or have the most power. And we are constantly vying for that power. When we make decisions, we take into consideration other people’s opinions because we know there are social consequences to our choices. And even if we are loath to admit it, our frenemies’ opinions do matter to us in certain situations. We may not trust them, but we are affected by their opinions. This phenomenon, and the fact that we maintain these relationships – c’mon: how many of your 900 Facebook friends are really “friends”? – are just some of the fascinating ways in which social networks affect human behavior.

These findings are significant when you consider how much money social media companies are investing to make their sites more “intelligent.” We’re already seeing a number of companies trying hard to make the trusted opinions of our friends a big part of how we search for information. (Conventional search gives us the most popular opinions).

Take, for instance, the new iPhone app, Pose. The app allows users to share what they’re buying – or even just eyeing – with their friends. With Pose, users take a picture of themselves wearing an item and tag it with their current location and the item’s price. Then they share it with friends via Twitter and Facebook. Friends and strangers leave their comments on the photo, which is supposed to help users decide whether or not to buy it.

There’s also the social search service, Aardvark, which was acquired by Google last year. Aardvark enables users to get the answers to their burning questions by tapping into the wisdom and experience of their friends and extended network. Aardvark evaluates each question, and then matches it to people with pertinent knowledge and interests to quickly give people an answer.

Finally, there’s the Bing-Facebook search function. Microsoft has an exclusive partnership with Facebook so that when a user searches for information on the Internet, their friends’ opinions are weighted heavily in their results.

There is a clear lesson here for companies that are trying to add these so-called trusted opinions as a component to search: the relationship between ties, trust, and decision-making is complicated. We treat the opinions of our social ties in distinct ways, and different people have influence over us in different situations. So it’s not enough to get people to “Like” your products and services. It all depends on who’s doing the liking (or disliking). Those opinions could have a lot of credence, or none at all.

* Frenemies Like These: How Expectations of the Trustworthiness of Advice from Social Network Ties Impact Decision-Making (Working paper)

See related article in the Financial Times 

Renée Richardson Gosline is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Management Science group


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