Bigger is always better. Many of us think this is true when it comes to building our online networks of social friends, connections, and followers. But new research suggests that the opposite may be closer to the truth: Organizing small networks of reliable connections may be smarter in the long run. While this may seem counterintuitive, it does come with a caveat.
We often feel compelled, and even encouraged by social media platforms, to grow our networks. Consider all claims for “someone else you may know” and “whom you should follow.” we all want social metrics (This number of friends or followers posted in the corner of your profile) to look good.
Offline social networks
Our social networks can work either offline or online prisms or tubes.
as prisms, they broadcast our likes, dislikes, opinions, interests, activities, and more to others. They indicate what we are, or want to be, for our network of social contacts.
as tubesThey serve as channels through which help and resources can flow. Using our networks as pipes is an important part of how we build relationships. We give and receive advice, advocacy, endorsements, emotional support and tangible things (entrepreneurs, for example).
Studies of face-to-face networks have generally shown that whether we use our nets as posts or tubes, larger is better.
But what about the Internet?
We stream to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram because it’s easy to view, share and store our communications, allowing us to connect with them whenever we want. This is what makes online and offline calling so different. We can’t search and find a review we sent six days ago to a friend over coffee. However, we can find and re-share a conversation we had with our “friends” on Facebook three years ago. It turns out that this is a really important distinction.
When we use our online networks as tubes, not saws, this is important and appears to be valuable. In a recent study of Canadian entrepreneurs, our team of researchers uncovered this counterintuitive point and shed light on the reasons why.
We think it suggests some broader ideas.
Use of our online networks
For people to actually use their online networks as pipelines for resources and support, there are three things that have to come together. First, we need to believe that we have the ability to request or provide a resource or support (called exchange). Second, we need a way to actually make the exchange happen. Finally, we need to do the exchange.
All the digital viewing, scanning, sharing, searching and storage capabilities of our social media networks make it really easy for us to believe we have the capacity and arrangements to use our networks as tubes. I can quickly and easily ask my web for something I need and get a quick response. But our research indicates that we don’t always have the willingness to ask.
Through interviews with entrepreneurs, we’ve discovered that the reason is most likely that people are really worried about what other people think. Perceived social governance risks can stand in the way of entrepreneurs getting useful resources from their online networks. We suspect it’s not just about entrepreneurs. That’s because perceived social judgment risks are a product of audience breakdown, which reduces our desire to communicate online.
Audience breakdown occurs when we add people to our online networks from all aspects of our lives. These may be people we know well and people we barely know; Personal connections, work acquaintances, relationships with volunteers, connections to the city and those with common interests and hobbies.
By building these diverse and bloated networks, and inviting many different people to join, our desire to seek help decreases. With all this research, presentation and sharing, who knows where our application might arrive?
Our research reveals that many of us are likely to be aware of the many dangers of social judgment in requesting anything but information from our online networks. We worry that others will judge our requests as weak, needy, uncertain, confused, too personal or otherwise inappropriate, making us less willing to ask for help. This embedding the dark side of Bigger is better Social networks are rarely discussed.
If this is an echo, what can you do?
To make our social networks useful as tubes, we suggest creating trust networks. These are specifically designed to stay small – yes, small. Only add people who will support, not negative judgment, any request for help you might make – these are the people you trust.
The trust network is likely to be very high in exchange, or give and get help, because all members feel it is a safe place to seek and provide help. A piping network becomes really useful where it is small, not big, of value.
So, if you want to use your internet networks as a publication to send signals to the world – stay big. But if you want to give and get help, create a small purpose-built network of trust on social media. We think you’ll be glad you did.