We’ve all seen people do it in our social networks, and there’s a good chance we’ve probably done it ourselves now and then. What is it? Asking questions of the people who follow us on Twitter, or our Facebook friends. You know the kind: What cellphone should I buy, what did you think of a particular movie, where can I get rid of an unlicensed handgun, that kind of thing (okay, that last one was me). But what are the most popular kinds of questions we ask our friends and followers? A new study from MIT and Microsoft Research took a look at that by asking a group of users what kinds of questions they asked their networks.
According to the survey, questions ranged from the somewhat open-ended and philosophical (“Why are men so stupid?”) to the explicitly practical (“Point-and-shoot camera just died — need to replace it today for vacation. What should I buy?). The most popular question types were recommendation and opinion questions, such as “I’m building a new playlist — any ideas for good running songs?,” followed by factual knowledge and rhetorical types of questions (we’re assuming that the “Why are men so stupid?” one probably fell into the latter category).
Not surprisingly, technology-related questions were the largest single topic (“Anyone know a good Windows 6 phone that won’t break the bank?”) followed by entertainment-related queries (“Was seeing Up in the theater worth the money?”). People also asked a lot of questions related to home and the family, including “What is the going rate for the tooth fairy?” and questions relating to shopping, travel, restaurants, etc. were also popular, including “What’s a good Mother’s Day gift?”
For the survey, Meredith Ringel Morris and Jaime Teevan from Microsoft Research and Katrina Panovich from MIT asked 624 users, 25 percent of whom were female. More than 70 percent were full-time employees of Microsoft and 27 percent were university students working as summer interns at the software company. Almost half of those surveyed were between 26 and 35 years old, while almost 30 percent were between 18 and 25 years of age, and 25 percent were 36 to 45 years old.
The survey showed that almost all of the users who responded (98 percent) had Facebook accounts, and 71 percent had Twitter accounts. The average size of a social network on Facebook was 209 friends, which is interesting if you’ve ever heard of Dunbar’s number — a theoretical limit on the number of people the average person can remain connected to in any meaningful way, which the social scientist said was usually 150. Most users who took part in the survey said that they asked their social networks questions because “I trust my friends more than I trust strangers,” while the second-largest response was “A search engine can provide data but not an opinion.”
Interestingly enough, as part of the survey the MIT/Microsoft team asked respondents how many times they updated their Facebook status or their Twitter page, and found that more than 21 percent of those surveyed — the largest single group — updated their Twitter page a few times a day, whereas only 10 percent said the same thing of Facebook. The most common response for Facebook came from 30 percent of those surveyed, who said they updated their status a few times a week.
Although drawing a lot of major conclusions from this survey wouldn’t be wise, considering its small sample size and the fact that it was composed entirely of Microsoft staff, there is no question (pun intended) that social networks are increasingly becoming the place where people find answers to their questions, from the trivial to the serious. The fact that this is happening, and the fact that many of those questions involve purchasing behavior, has implications for businesses and also for search giants like Google and Microsoft. For more on that, check out what Om had to say in a GigaOm Pro report called Why Google Should Fear The Social Web (subscription required).