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The Value of Connections
Jon Lebkowsky, 30 Oct 07
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I've been struggling with social networks and social network platforms: I have a lot of thoughts about them, all clamoring for attention in my head, and I'm to create neat square boxes for my thoughts, the way consultants do when they create those neat clearly-articulated lists that are supposed to show off their expertise.

There's a whole world of web marketing consultants that do this – Rohit Bhargava, for instance, and his "five rules of social media optimization." Others, presumably also marketing consultants, added more, and eventually there were seventeen rules (of diminishing relevance, in my opinion). But what I'm describing here is an attempt to make the wildly complex and chaotic web bite-size understandable for the bazillion people who want – or need – to do business there.

Social media and social network platforms are related but different. Social media is what we sometimes also call "user generated content;" it's been part of the Internet since the web came along and Internet service providers gave their customers "public.html" directories where anybody with an account could have a web page... which meant that anybody could be a publisher, extending a trend that had begun with desktop publishing and 'zines. The big surprise was that content created by amateurs could be good, sometimes great.

Later blogs came along, then sites like Flickr (photos) and YouTube (videos) for user-generated rich media.

Cream tended to rise. And so, in the world of social media, people who never would've made a dent in the professional publishing world built huge audiences for their blogs, photos and videos. The social aspect was that blogs and media sites facilitated not just publishing, but conversation. People were talking with and through their contribuitions to the social mediasphere.

In the midst of all this, social network platforms have appeared – sites like Ryze and Friendster and Orkut and Myspace, and lately the phenomenally successful Facebook. Other sites, like Flickr, incorporate social network features to support the core activity of the site, which in the case of Flickr is photo publishing and sharing. Social network sites encourage their users to create rich profiles that can be used to facilitate connection, to identify connections with people on the network that they already know, and to invite their friends to join and connect.

I've had a lot of conversations lately about the value of social network platforms or the value of connections made within those platforms. That word "value" is a sticking point because it's about qualities that are quite subjective, variable, and hard to assess in any standardized way.

The conversation about social network value starts with a couple of assertions, or "laws," that have influenced the evolution of both technical and social networks:

  • Metcalfe's Law: The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of endpoints.
  • Reed's Law: The utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.

The first law, authored by Ethernet creator Bob Metcalfe, describes how the value of a communications network grows with the square of the number of people or devices it connects. Forgetting the math behind this assertion, what he's really saying is that the value grows faster than the number of access points.

Metcalfe coined another term, network effect, to describe the increase in value of a good or service as it's adopted by more and more people. This makes sense: If only one guy has a telephone, it's not valuable at all, but as more and more people acquire phones, value increases because the potential for connection increases. When I first got an email account in the 1980's, its value was practically zero because there were so few email users and nobody I knew had it. From a personal perspective, as more people used email, and especially as more people I knew got accounts, the more valuable it became. From a global perspective, email has significant value now because so many people have accounts. Even the homeless guy sleeping in the park is liable to have a free email account that he can access at the library.

(Increased value can also have a down side. Because the network is so valuable, it creates a negative, in that it creates value for the spammers who make my life, and probably yours, miserable.)

Metcalfe was influential early on, but David Reed went a step further, and a lot of us who've been co-creating the "Web 2.0" world had an "aha moment" when we read his piece about the "sneaky exponential" and the real power of community building.

Reed says that a network's value can grow even more dramatically than Metcalfe had imagined. Metcalfe's Law hadn't considered how the number of potential subgroups of a social network grows as more people join the network.
In fact, the value of a network increases exponentially as it scales up.

These two laws explain a lot about the Internet's growth and impact. But the way they describe value doesn't help me understand how to think about my own relationship to social networks – not the specific platforms necessarily, but the people I'm connected to, and the meaning and relevance of those connections.

Forget the technology for a minute: what nonvirtual social networks am I part of, and how do I participate? My involvement varies, as does the strength of connections to the people I know. But what does it mean to "know" someone?

I don't have a clear, standardized way to evaluate those connections, so I don't can't say how valuable I think they are without being quite subjective. As a first step in assessing value, I should consider how I define whether I'm connected to somebody, and the degrees of possible connection.

So what's the minimum that has to be there for a connection to exist? I think there's no connection without reciprocity, i.e. if I know who Brad Pitt is, that doesn't mean we're connected. The least connection would be that I recognize his name and he recognizes mine, though that's not quite it. It could be that I've seen him in films and (however unlikely) that he's read something I've written, in which case we might recognize each other's names. I think, to have a connection, we also have to have met, if only through email.

At that point we're networked, but how much value does that kind of link have? It's pretty insignificant. Compare it to a really strong link – for instance, my connection to one of my business partners. Not only are we connected, but we're working together on something, and we hope that our project will have real value. That kind of link is inherently more valuable. How many strong links like this can I sustain? Probably not many, because that kind of link requires a commitment to a certain social overhead of time and attention, and both are available only in limited quantities.

I've heard people say that they know many people but have very few friends; that's a bandwidth issue. Last night I ran into a friend that I haven't seen much lately. We share membership in some online social networks, but the shared virtual space isn't doing much for our connection. Another way to say it is that those networks, while they may appear valuable, aren't effective in supporting the specific connection between two members. Ours had thinned; some projects we were working on had fallen off. Let's find something in your world or my world where we have some overlap, we said to each other, and create an opportunity to hang out. Neither of us considered hanging out just for the hell of it; we're both busy, so hanging out would be conditional on the value that might be created if we collaborated on something.

I have a lot of connections on Facebook – 415, to be exact. When I go there, I see quite a few friends doing interesting things, and I always have invitations to connect, join groups, join causes, etc. Facebook is a very effective social network platform, perhaps because people like me like the idea of having a place where we can connect with people we know. But the more people we connect with, the more demands there are on our limited attention, and the less truly engaged we can be with anyone.

On the other hand, the more people I connect to on Facebook, the more who will see my stuff. So if I ever do have a cause I want supported, or a message I want to circulate, having a large network would be helpful. The downside is that it feels less social and more like the broadcast model of publishing: one to many.

I do want more Facebook friends, but there are some significant issues to think about if I want to use the network effectively and avoid wasting my -- and everyone's -- time. And there's a distinction to be made between "social" and "mass." As you get more and more connections you have more social overhead; as you scale up you run into an inherent limit on social media's ability to remain social. If I value a broad attention base or large audience over effective manageable relationships, I should work from a different set of assumptions.

I still don't have neat boxes for these thoughts and concepts; I have more that I'll get into within the next few weeks. Meanwhile I'd like to hear your thoughts...

Image: Jon L.'s "Friend Wheel" from Facebook.

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Comments

Neither of us considered hanging out just for the hell of it; we're both busy, so hanging out would be conditional on the value that might be created if we collaborated on something.

This sentence really stands out for me. Is this the choice we want to be making about the value of friends? Is this really working for you, Jon?


Posted by: Kim on 31 Oct 07

When I was a college student I had a friend who was in studying architecture and carrying a 24 hour course load. I asked him to go to a movie and he jokingly told me I was decadent. I thought it was criminal that he wasn't taking time off. Some years later we asked a friend to hang out with us, and she checked her calendar and said she couldn't find a slot. We thought she was nuts. Back then I focused on relationships and kept my work in a defined slot... I would never have dreamed of writing the sentence you quote above. I don't think I was wrong then and I don't think I'm wrong now...

If you're very project- and work-oriented and trying to get a lot done, it's a fact of life that it's hard to have purely social engagements that don't relate to the work you're doing. I don't think this is consistently and universally true... I still have periods of less work and actual time to hang out. It depends where you are with your life and what choices you've made.

The value you look for in connections will also vary according to the choices you're making at whatever point in your life.

"Your mileage may vary."


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 31 Oct 07

Dear Jon,

try Zaadz.com too.

Its about Purpose, Value, Empowerment, Change and thus creating a whole new dimension.

Best,
Albert Klamt


Posted by: Albert Klamt on 1 Nov 07

"On the other hand, the more people I connect to on Facebook, the more who will see my stuff. So if I ever do have a cause I want supported, or a message I want to circulate, having a large network would be helpful. The downside is that it feels less social and more like the broadcast model of publishing: one to many."
". . . as you scale up you run into an inherent limit on social media's ability to remain social. If I value a broad attention base or large audience over effective manageable relationships, I should work from a different set of assumptions."

I think these two paragraph hints the appropriate role for social networks. There are connections that needs only a minimum level of relationship, and there are connections that requires a high level of it.

While some connections remains entirely uncared for, as connections in themselves, they are meaningful than having no connection at all. For me, it keeps me connected to friends from the past (I use Friendster for this).

On the other hand, I always longed for a social network that is meaningful for me to participate and grow in, and to help grow and mature, especially in connection to making our lives and our world better--more just and more sustainable.

Albert Klamt suggestion: Zaadz.com caught my attention once, but was insufficient for me (I do however use their socially generated "Quotes" collection extensively). Later on I found a social network which fits exactly my needs and expectations, but is still in the early phase of growth: www.wiserearth.org with a very noble cause underlying the building of their social network: "Toward a Just and Sustainable World Created by Community".

In WiserEarth, almost every person I know of are worth knowing and connecting to (I joined them on August 1st this year). But since I don't know any one of them personally, I take my time to get acquainted by learning each of their profile and activities thoughtfully.

I once received a Skype phone call from someone I just met there offering to send me Bioneers DVD proceedings and showing me the possibility of WiserEarth in directly connecting people from the other side of the world (he is from the USA, and I'm in Indonesia). This kind of relationship I would not imagine of having in a network like Friendster. I guess it was fueled by his passion to help fellow learners in "Toward a Just and Sustainable World Created by Community"

Another example was intelligent conversations I had with a 64 year old guy (I'm 27 by the way) on his project called Global Assembly Dialog. To this day, we help each other out on our own projects.

From these personal examples in my WiserEarth participation, another thing to add to your arsenal in the theory of social networks would be:
"the congruency of the goal of, and the expectations of participants in the network, will be exponentially reflected in the outcome of the interactions within the network."
(you should be able to find better expression for this)

This principle should also be applicable to Friendster and the like, which for Friendster's case is "a leading global social network emphasizing genuine friendships and the discovery of new people through friends" which served my expectation to connect with old friends and find new friends quite well. LinkedIn for example, worked out for dealing with connections in our professional lives (I haven't tested it out yet though).

For WiserEarth's case, this is not fully tested yet. But from my experiences, from the comments of people using the network and by noticing that it aims to bring together the people and organizations of the "movement of movements" that is changing the world as we speak, there is a lot of reason for optimism. We shall have to see further down the road.


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 1 Nov 07

I shall have to add to the general principle I mentioned in my last comment into:

"the congruency of the goal, the tools/features and the expectations of participants in the network, will be exponentially reflected in the outcomes of the interactions within the network."
(again, you should be able to find better expression for this principle)

For example, it does not make much sense to put "create and manage a project", "wikipage" or "job/internship/volunteering opportunities" features in Friendster, but make so much sense to put in WiserEarth.

Don't forget to check out http://www.wiserearth.org to see what I mean.


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 1 Nov 07

Long winded comments folks...

The Fax machine changed the nature of communications, because it required at least 2 machines for it to 'work.'

And now we have so many social and professional networks that it almost makes it impossible to establish personal, up close, links with real people.

Facemail versus Email versus Voicemail versus IM messaging. As we move closer to robotic actions, we are in danger of losing our humanity.

Anyone for Web X?


Posted by: Captain John on 2 Nov 07

Hey Jon and all.

I recently posted a related article in the World Changing Canada blog called "Networks for Change". In it I discuss about about 10 social network sites that were created to support people with interests in social and environmental causes.

I hope you find it useful.

-jd


Posted by: Jason Diceman on 4 Nov 07

Thanks, Jason! That's a great resource.


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 5 Nov 07

Great post, thanks.

Value networks are some WD-40 for your sticking point:

"That word "value" is a sticking point because it's about qualities that are quite subjective, variable, and hard to assess in any standardized way."

In the past, yes, but today, no, or almost getting to 'no.'

Value networks and value network analysis, make the invisible visible; they make the all-important intangibles negotiable.

More here at the free open source destination for the Value Network Consortium.

http://www.value-networks.com/

-j


Posted by: John Maloney on 6 Nov 07

John, thanks for the link. I agree that the value networks approach is helpful, and I had already been thinking about following up with a post on the subject.


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 6 Nov 07



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