Are there cliques on social networking Web sites?

"The Breakfast Club" hit the nail on the head way back in 1985.
Photo Courtesy Universal Home Video

In 1985, a 35-year-old filmmaker named John Hughes redefined the teen movie genre with his smash hit "The Breakfast Club." High school kids all over America identified with at least one of the social groups represented in the film. The five characters, which were dubbed the brain, the athlete, the princess, the criminal and the basket case, aptly fit just about every type of high school clique. Sure, there are subcategories. But those five stereotypes were, and are, right on the money when it comes to high school culture.

As humans evolved, they lived as individual families before quickly learning that coming together as a village of many families had its advantages. Those villages became towns, and the towns became cities. It wasn't long after humans came together in communities that cliques were established. Researcher P.C. Broderick, in his book "The Life Span," posits that a child's need to define him or herself and identify with others is the main reason why.


ComparingĀ ourselves to other humans is one of the main ways we establish our own identities. That may sound like a contradiction, but someone who truly marches to the beat of his own drummer is a rarity, if not a complete falsehood. Cliques are nothing but means of social comparison, and we tend to act, dress and behave like those closest to us. Or we gravitate toward those who have the same interests.

With the birth of social networking Web sites, you'd think that cliques would be a thing of the past. After all, you can't stand around a cafeteria in groups and talk about each other. Or can you? Just because you aren't literally standing around in a circle and judging your classmate's wardrobe doesn't mean it can't happen on a virtual level. The truth is, social networking sites are chock full of cliques, and it's not just teenagers. You might be surprised to learn that those 30- and 40-somethings on Facebook are forming cliques too -- whether they realize it or not. So turn back the clock -- it's high school.


Social Networking and Cliques

Cliques can make people feel left out.
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Social networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace are a relatively new facet of the Internet. Social gathering places began with Usenet in the early 1980s. This is where people could first interact with each other in "newsgroups" by posting messages on public bulletin boards. The message board platform is still alive and kicking today as a vital aspect of many social networking Web sites. It's human nature for people to congregate with others who share common interests, so many newsgroups became early forms of Internet cliques. If you wanted to chat about your favorite music or television show, you could log in to a newsgroup full of like-minded individuals and share your thoughts.

Not much research has been done on social networking Web sites yet, but one interesting study was performed by the MIT Sloan School of Management. In the study, researchers used a computer model to simulate the way users interact on social networking sites. Using 40,000 participants, the research team created what they called "random noise" -- cultural exchanges that mimicked online interaction. They found that users tend to form smaller groups with others who had similar politics, types of jobs and musical tastes. Not only that, but they even tended to link up with others who looked like they did.


It's a concept called homophily. The term was coined by sociologists in the 1950s to describe people's tendency to associate with others who have similar interests and beliefs. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook wrote a paper on the subject in 2001 called "Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks." They determined that people's personal networks are essentially homogeneous. The MIT study seems to confirm that similarity does in fact breed connection, whether it's the social networks we form online or the ones we have in our everyday offline life.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Broderick, P.C. "Why Do Cliques Form?" 2009.
  • Falzon, Lucia. "Determining groups from the clique structure in large social networks." May 24, 2000.
  • McPherson, Miller, Smith-Lovin, Lynn and Cook, James M. "Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks." Annual Reviews. 2009.
  • Pagliarini, Robert. "Is Social Networking Bad for You?" April 6, 2009.
  • Retica, Aaron. "Homophily," The New York Times. Dec. 10, 2006.
  • Rogers, John. "Facer, Spacer or Tweeter: What's your social networking clique?" The Saratogian. May 17, 2009.
  • Snowfield, Gennefer. "Popularity or Bust: Is Social Media Just Another Clique Maker?" Socially Minded. July 28, 2008.
  • Thronton, Carla. "Study: social cliques carry over to the Internet." The Industry Standard. March 6, 2009.