Cheap Date: Do Free Social Connections Create Hidden Costs?


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Which choice provides the best answer for the statement,

An online social network requires each of the following, EXCEPT:

A. a computer or mobile device
B. an Internet connection
C. people you like, know, and trust

The correct answer, of course, is C. No need for familiarity, either. “You have one friend request. Click to confirm.” Done!—without even shedding your fuzzy bedroom slippers. But is your social network a trusted community of valued connections, or simply a collection of names?

Marketing technology has met social networking, and changed it. Whether it’s for the better is another question. Once-private “black books” are open to the world. I can “connect” with people I don’t know. From the comfort of my office, I can solicit thousands who have never heard of me or my company to follow me on Twitter, to join my network on LinkedIn, or to become a friend on Facebook. Anyone can connect with anyone—or anything. No additional charge!

“Community” now grows at warp speed—but assumptions struggle to keep pace. Why? Because many people maintain that “social network” and “trusted connections” are intertwined ideas. True–before “click to connect.” But zero-cost Web 2.0 social connections mean there’s a significant likelihood that any two connected individuals have never communicated beyond a perfunctory default email invitation, and a single mouse click. Compare that process to laborious face-to-face meetings, and it’s easy to understand social media’s stunning popularity for building community. Scalable workflows and simple user interfaces have obviated the need to shake hands.

Has the concept faded that social connections are spawned when people mingle with like-minded people? As web-based communities erode boundaries between personal and professional domains, are we more open-minded to different beliefs and ideas—or just more dispassionate? I floated a related question on LinkedIn: “Would you sever a social network connection if you learned the individual belonged to a group, or held an opinion, that was diametrically opposed to a matter important to you?”

Some people drew an almost-crisp line. Mike Stankus, CEO of STM/360 said “if the person was part of a movement (or) group that was pushing hate or some other seriously negative agenda, I probably would sever the connection.” Sales expert Christian Maurer shared that he recently cut a tie. “I did not want readers of my profile (to) draw the conclusion that I could possibly be supporting an idea by being linked to this individual.” Others were ambivalent. A few wrote they value diverse opinions, and social media allows people of adamantly opposing viewpoints to connect. In a sense, we’ve come a long way. Although the same individuals might never socialize over a beer, they remain happily connected in the virtual Web 2.0 world.

In three years, social media technologies have undermined basic assumptions about connectedness. In January, 2007, blogger Guy Kawasaki wrote, (“10 ways to use LinkedIn”)

“By adding connections, you increase the likelihood that people will see your profile first when they’re searching for someone to hire or do business with. In addition to appearing at the top of search results (which is a major plus if you’re one of the 52,000 product managers on LinkedIn), people would much rather work with people who their friends know and trust.”

Feel the love! But not everyone looks at connectedness that way, as blogger Joe Bartling describes: (“LinkedIn: The Myth of Having “Too Many Connections”)

“To me, having too many connections is like having too much MONEY. Bring me the connections, and bring me the money! People seem to think that a person who has ‘too many connections’ doesn’t have a life. Though that may be true, it’s not because he/she has too many connections.”

Want to understand “connection” and “connectedness” in the context of social media? It’s hard to reconcile those two statements. While both tout the benefit of numbers, one statement assumes “know and trust,” while the second one doesn’t make any mention of either. If you believe the concepts of social networks and meaningful connections are inextricable, then indiscriminately adding connections erodes the value of the network. If networks are valued for quantity of connections, then the assumption of trust between connections adds risk, because there is little that coheres individuals. These risks create costs, a reason that people are driven to B2B communities that are “‘gated’ or have a threshold for membership,” as Vanessa DiMauro describes in her blog, “Moderating B2B Communities: Keeping the Fire Lit”.

The future of web-based social networks will be determined more by the requirements of people who use them, than by the technologies that enable them. If societies value true communities, then shared beliefs, trust, and common purpose must exist within those communities. Easier said than done! With 230 million and 50 million members respectively, Facebook and LinkedIn undoubtedly know that it’s harder to measure the intangibles that flow between connections—knowledge, innovation, inspiration, and energy—than it is to collect data about individuals.

Further reading:

Lynn Townsend White, Jr. versus: Technological Determinism


  1. One of the concepts that I’ve started incorporating into my own writings on social media networks is the notion of link investment or link energy. This represents the degree to which I lose value by severing the link. With Twitter, link investment is low – in general, if I decide that a person who I’m following is not in fact adding value to me (and many don’t), then severing that link costs me little, and may even become a net positive in that it decreases the noise to signal ratio in my information space. Linked In, for me, represents a higher investment, because the cost of severing a link may very well be loss of business opportunities or critical information in that same space. I liken the concept to tensile energy – a high investment bond typically requires more “social energy” to form, but that link retains a higher latent energy as a consequence.

    I think that this is true for all social media networks, but that the topology of the space so created varies considerably based upon the SMN in question (think of it as an energy density function). I suspect that the ideal social media would end up with a near uniform distribution, with strong links bound closely, loosely held links at some distance, and the vast majority somewhere in the middle. Most real social media probably have a different kind of distribution function – Twitter tends to have a shell concentration with comparatively few strong links and a number of weak ones, Facebook probably has something more uniform, while Linked In tends to have stratified shells of distribution based both upon connectivity and activity.

  2. Kurt: Thanks. Great insight. Social media networks depend on rapid adoption, but in the process they have sacrificed managing link energy, as you describe. LinkedIn softly pushed a suggestion that people only connect with those they know well.

    Great advice–except . . . during the early adoption phase for LinkedIn, people with the most “connections” bubbled to the top of searches–and it was assumed they were the best connected. So much for incentive to connect only with people you “know well.”

    At least for me, people who had “500+” connections began to look like connection collectors. I questioned whether many (or any!) of the connections were truly valuable. Paradoxically, I viewed people with fewer connections as more valuable to me, since I assumed these individuals sought collaborative relationships that truly add value.

    What makes a high investment bond worth it becomes a fascinating question when looking at different social network sites. Does it go beyond knowledge transfer, innovation, and revenue generation? What energy must flow between connections that makes them valuable?

  3. Andrew-

    you raise excellent points in your post – I like the quick poll upfront~
    you hit on the key issue/differences between social networks and online community. Size matters, as you talk about, in the context of the goals. On social networks, many assert the bigger the better as the main goal is to connect or build a Rolodex of peers, a network of loose connections. With online communities – the who tends to matter more than the how many, as a smaller number of peers who matter to you exchanging ideas over time – fewer but deeper knowledge nodes are more valuable then a large scale of loose connections.

    Thanks for raising these important issues. At the end of your post, you mention the knowledge capture issue – how do you think the data privacy issues will impact or change our connection strategies in the future – if at all?

  4. The more I read and hear about this topic, the more I believe there is only one answer, and that is “It depends.”

    It depends on your business objectives. It depends on what implicit or explicit assumptions or promises there are about what being in the network entails (e.g. am I *obliged* to forward a request if I am in your immediate network? I believe I am but I know not everyone adheres to that, in the larger groups at least.) It depends on what systems we have in place, if any, to manage the relationships.

    As for me, with 753 people in my direct connections on LinkedIn, 453,000 in the next level and over 14 million at the third remove, I have to wonder – *for my business* – what is to be gained by going for bigger numbers. I actually believe that at 753 in the first level I have a real challenge in being able to maintain that as a *relationship* network. Although some scrutiny I’ve just done suggests a need to segment that group into sub-groups in terms of real connectedness and real likelihood (or otherwise) of our being able and willing to support/recommend one another and have that be a fruitful process.

    But that’s for my business. I acknowledge that others can can mount objectively persuasive arguments for building much larger groups. I just believe that in those “super-connector” networks those “direct connections” may not always necessarily be *good* connections.

    When Bill Vick and I wrote the book LinkedIn for Recruiting some years ago we found some very successful recruiters who were more selective about their direct connections and some who were more into quantity. But even those who favoured big numbers were at pains to say you still had to aim for a quality network. How you manage that with very large numbers is a big question.


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