Social Networks

Social Networks

Corvida from SheGeeks did a guest post over at Chris Brogan’s blog about how as the size of her social network has expanded on twitter, she felt the quality of the conversations she was having deteriorated. I think this is something many people have experienced, whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks.

I’ve experienced this, as have many of my friends. And no one seems to have found a reasonable solution.

There was a time when Twitter was an effective back channel for communications at conferences. It was a way of using broadcast IM to a bunch of friends and associates. It was the work water cooler with friends and colleagues who were hundreds of miles apart. I knew, in real life, pretty much everyone I was following and vice versa.

Then Twitter started getting popular. Jaiku and Pownce came onto the scene, and people tried them out but stayed with twitter. Plurk showed us twitter with some different features, but Twitter seems to have maintained its critical mass. Some people prefer one “twitter-esque” service over another, maybe enjoy one or two additional features, yet there are also downsides to each. What is the twitter magic? And does the magic wear off if your social network gets “too” big? What is “too” big?

What’s going on here?

If we dig underneath the surface, we can start to examine all the social networks on the net as a sociologist/anthropologist/psychologist might. If you step back, you notice the following “rules” appear:

1. Social Networks online have their own culture. Like any group in real life, each online group has its own flavor and feel, influenced both by the architecture of the site and the people who have decided to live there, not unlike a virtual apartment complex online. There are rules, overt and covert, about what’s okay and what’s not, and it’s only by being a part of that community that you begin to understand the rules.

Real life comparisons: Margaret Mead wrote her book, Coming of Age in Samoa, where she learned about this culture not just as an observer, but being part of the community for a time. Likewise, you have to “live” in these new media communities to really get the “feel” of them and what they’re about.

2. Social Networks and their “feel” depend heavily on those who participate. a.k.a The Cool Kids Phenomenon. People want to hang out where their friends hang out. Certain social networks create a critical mass of “cool kids”, and when their friends join, and then their friends, you get a chain reaction and eventually, hopefully, a critical mass of users.

Real life comparisons: Any fad begins with the adaptation of style or item by the Cool Kids, and then the phenomenon spreads out virally from there. Malcolm Gladwell has a great chapter on this in The Tipping Point; another great book that explains this is Buying In by Rob Walker– (he has a great new word, Murketing, which is not getting nearly as much play as it deserves.)

3. There’s a Physical Limit on the number of people we can “know” versus “know of”. a.k.a. The Dunbar’s Number Problem. (*warning: geeky research ahead)

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, found that the number of social contacts primates have seems to be proportional with the size of their neo-cortex in the brain. Based on the neocortex in humans and looking at historical data of the maximum size of intimate social groups throughout history, Dunbar theorized that the maximum effective social group size is about 148 (with a range of 100-230). Two other anthropologists, Bernard & Killworth, through studies done in the US, show that the mean number of effective social ties may be closer to 290. Regardless, Dunbar’s number of 150, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, has been used by many corporations including W.L.Gore to limit the size of its working groups to maximize their efficiency.

So what? Well, this means that there is a physical, brain-based limit in the amount of social information we can process.

In context, you can keep track of somewhere near 150 people and their inter-related social connections. For example, ie. Chris Brogan and Chris Penn started Podcamp after meeting at Barcamp; I met them at the first Podcamp Boston, and we became friends along with other people who attended, including John Havens, Jay Moonah, and Justin Kownacki, and subsequently helped seed Podcamps in our respective cities. I know these people, but I also know their interconnections and history to some extent, layered on with our communications through online and offline social networks.

But your brain doesn’t have the infinite capacity of Google, and you can’t maintain this level of knowledge for everyone you have every met, especially when the relationship may be online only.

4. There’s no easy way to “classify” your degree of friendship online. My friend CC Chapman and I spoke of this, and he did a great episode of Managing the Gray about it, causing a pretty lively conversation.

We all have friends and acquaintances in real life, and there’s a decent sense of who you are close to and who you don’t know as well. Online, the word “friend” is used to describe them all. There’s no easy way to classify people you admire but don’t really know, people you’d like to get to know, people who want to know you, and the people you’d have over to dinner and let stay at the house in a moment’s notice- there’s not real strata or caste of friends. Interestingly enough, any attempt to do so also meets with a lot of negative response- this feels undemocratic, and like creating gates on open communities. Who goes invited and who does not? Where do you draw those lines?

5. As the Quantity of Your Contacts Increases, the Quality of the Relationships Decrease.

Like Corvida said over on Chris’s blog, the more connected she has become, the less intimate the relationship becomes, and the more background noise is added into the valuable information. When I was following between 150 and 300 people on Twitter, I felt like I had relationships with them all. After running some Podcamps, my followers began climbing, which is great, but I took a tact to limiting those I would follow for a long time. Even now, not trying to be snobby, but trying to limit the info to noise ratio, I try to keep the people I am following down, but I find that I am pretty interested in the information I get from the 969 people I am currently following, even if I no longer know them all, and some not at all. I am certainly not personal friends with all 1,614 of my followers, and I have also filtered my follows into a gmail folder, and do adds once a week.

Other people take an entirely different tact, and that can be a good thing as well- Chris Brogan follows just about everyone back who follows him, and as a result he has over 15,000 followers and is following over 13,000 people back. Madison Square Gardens, the famous New York City venue, has a capacity to seat slightly over 19,000 people for a basketball game, and over 18,000 people for hockey. In very short order, Chris Brogan’s followers will be able to “sellout” Madison Square Gardens, or Boston Garden, for that matter.

Clearly, no one can maintain intimate, personal relationships with everyone in a hockey arena. The quality of the conversations may still be great, it may be a great way to source information quickly, but at 15,000, you are dealing with Crowdsourcing, not friendship any longer.

6. The numbers alone make the community and neighborhoods on social networks different.

Based on the early adopters and their friends, each social network application takes on a personality of its own. For example, MySpace has, in my viewpoint, been given over to very young people, 15- 25, and to bands. I never got involved in Friendster. Facebook has become the place where old friends from high school and college can find me. Twitter is still the local coffee shop, where I can get the news of the day and chat with friends for a few minutes before heading off on the day’s tasks. Each community is different for me and has its own unique flavor. I use them for different purposes. For more intimate relationships, I’ve joined a couple of Ning groups and The Big Tent with the Manic Mommies, where I can have more personal conversations with people.

The bottom line here is just like all your friends don’t serve the same “purpose” for you in the real world- some you do stuff with, some you just exchange holiday cards, some you work with, but would never contemplate going on vacation together-likewise each social network may serve a different purpose, and the friends within it may vary, and that’s perfectly fine.

7. Automation of Cross Posts Helps, but also Limits Intimacy.

There are simply gazillions of social networks out on the web.  Each application that comes on the net promises new and unique features, but each new one I join fractures my attention. I’ve adopted a strategy of trying to interlace as many of these things as possible, so that when I post to twitter or to my blog, everything cross posts to Facebook. This has led some of my old friends from high school to wonder if I do anything other than post to Facebook everyday, but the truth is, I am not there very often- often I am doing work elsewhere that is automatically pasted to my billboard there.

When I put up my first Facebook page, having some friends to exchange information with was great. I joined a few groups, and added a few apps- it was fun. Now, the number of things that I am asked to participate in has gone beyond the social into the frantic, and I have dealt with it by not adding every app or responding to every invitation. I am not trying to be rude, but it is just overwhelming, and as a result, I’ve had to filter more and more of the “stuff”.  Yet within the past 2 months, old friends from high school and college who I adore have found me through Facebook and we’ve had a chance to reconnect, and that’s been fantastic.

But this also means the person to person responses I get on Facebook I don’t see more than a few times a week, so I may seem rude or unresponsive because it “looks” like I am there when I’m not.  This means I could be appearing rude to “real” friends, when the truth is I am not really there to respond more frequently.
The intimacy and immediacy are therefore lost in the process.  (No one likes it when it takes three weeks to finish a game of Scrabble.  You could play by Snail Mail faster.)

The “Unifying” Theory of Social Networks

Social networks allow us to communicate to many people, quickly, in a broadcast fashion.  Conversations, however, require more intimate settings and one on one communications often to extract maximum value.  For example, there are some problems that can’t be fully understood or answered in 140 characters or less; nuance is necessary.  But nuance is a luxury when you are navigating the optical networks at the speed of light.

So we have to choose our friends and networks.  We have to accept that our monkeybrains can only track so much data simultaneously before they shut down.  And we have to accept that as open source as the net is, sometimes we really do need gatekeepers and cliques and smaller circles to get stuff done.  And somehow, we’ll have to learn to accept that this is not some elitist stratification of people based on absurd notions of value or potential value, but the fact that our monkeybrains are not infinitely expandable, like Google.