Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Social Networks - Relationships are Fundamental

Social Networks - Relationships are Fundamental

In the last six weeks two people who have lots of network contacts and loads of experience hit the rocks nose down when trying to manipulate their social networks. I will not disclose who these people are, but both of them are people I know and respect. Yet they both got it wrong. Why?

One of them believes in the power of numbers. In his view the function of a social network is to open as many potential gateways for meaningful messages as possible. He states clearly that there is great value in random connections, that trying to choose who you connect to is a mistake. In his view, "Just make as many connections as you can. One day that will begin to pay off." But nobody can sustain 2563 online "friends" in any meaningful way. They just become a target for network spam, which is exactly what happened. Many "friends" responded with anger about becoming targets for unwanted messages.

The other one believes as I do, that the quality of the connection is important. You should only invite into your close network people you know (online) fairly well, people you have been in contact with several times, and with whom views on several topics have been shared. That seems to be a safe, conservative and productive strategy. Yet the networker involved came to grief, be tried to quickly build a network by making an offer people couldn't refuse, "free stuff for his friends". But it backfired, traffic to the established list doubled, lots of new people who didn't know the culture of the list suddenly arrived, too many started posting "I'm new here messages". A large number if existing members saw the value for time contribution of the list fall, so they started to leave.

People with experience cannot be manipulated online. You can send a message to lots of people but the power of that message is weak. People are free to choose what they want to do. Click and I'm gone. Newbies are vulnerable, but because newbies don't connect to anything much they are relatively safe. (Protected by ignorance) It's people making the transition from Newbie to Advanced User who are at risk. Once again, you need to connect to people, that's how you learn, but take it slowly, link to people you "know", build quality into your "friends" network.

People in this inner circle of "friends" are unlikely ever to be your customers. They are "close" to you, so when they ask for help, you volunteer your time. They are "members" and as the advertisement for a certain credit card says, "membership has it's privileges." Think about your own family. You don't do business with them, you "help them out."

The people you do business with are more distant. They may know about you, or not. If they care to use the social network they can quickly find out about you. Your reputation is in your small list of "friends" and in your public letters, and in what people choose to say about you. If this is positive news, your reputation will bring you potential customers. But if this is to remain a business relationship, there will remain an arm's length contact with them. They have the freedom to choose someone else, and you should have that freedom too.

My business card has a representation of an atom on it. An atom is an assembly of electrical particles. Some of them are tightly bound, and some of them are weakly bound. It's the relationships between the particles that makes each type of atom distinctive. This is one illustration of a truth Jonas Salk (polio vaccine) taught me, "Relationships are fundamental." You can see that in your own family. You can see that in your business. You can see that in a place like Iraq.

Also see my business blog.
An Open Future

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