There was some talk during the Enterprise 2.0 Conference last week that Social Networking was having a negative impact on our relationships. This idea was put forward by Alcatel-Lucent’s Kathleen Culver during her session (#e2onf-25), but not everyone bought into the concept.
I for one agree with the observation. What I feel we are seeing is the flattening of our overall relationship depth. To explain this, let me talk about the positive impact upon relationships first.
My Social Network Gains
My use of social networks is divided up into two groups, professional and social. I know that this is not necessarily the norm. That said, I have seen the tools that I use overall fall into two categories, regardless of focus:
- Network Mapping: This is LinkedIn (professional) and Facebook (personal). If I know someone well enough, I link to them. Essentially, the tie has to already exist. Obviously there is more that can be done with these tools, but we’ll hold off on that.
- Idea Sharing: This is Twitter and my blog, both professional in nature. I share ideas, both short and long, and over time the audience has grown. This growth has been through connecting and sharing other ideas. The connections are to mostly “new” ties.
LinkedIn, by itself, has not significantly grown my network. It has just helped me keep track of my professional network. LinkedIn’s capabilities have grown over the years, but my usage has not to a large degree.
As for Twitter/blogging, as of right now, I have about 900 people following me on Twitter and I am following about 200. I’d guess that there are at least 10-20 people that I have met that I could readily reach out to and have a drink with if I was passing through their town. A small handful of them might be upset if I didn’t reach out if I was passing through their neck of the woods
This is purely counting people that I wouldn’t otherwise know, not those that I’ve met through real life that I’ve connected to online after meeting in real life.
Overall, a net gain. Let’s look at Facebook…
Weakening my Strong Ties
On Facebook, I have about 150 friends. Most of them I knew before I joined Facebook, and a vast majority I met in real life first. They include family members, my best man, and my closest friends from high school.
The people that I listed are people that I kept in touch with before Facebook. There are many that I have resumed contact with since joining. Typically we exchange a few messages and maybe meet-up once. After establishing a ne “baseline”, we track each other through Facebook, exchange comments, and move on with our lives.
Let’s look at the close friends. We would regularly call each other, go out of our way to catch-up over drinks, and generally interact as much as our lives and the distance would allow.
Now, we mostly track each other through Facebook. We feel we know what is going on in each other’s lives. The urge/need to reach out over the phone isn’t as pressing. This seems good because I spend so much more time online, so it helps save time. Aside from maybe commenting on their statuses more than average, I interact with them online as much as most others on Facebook.
My strong relationships seem to be becoming weaker. My interactions with my close friends are, on average, more superficial than they where before Facebook.
My friendships seem to be moving towards the mean.
Is this Good?
Let’s quickly sum-up:
- Lots of new ties professionally.
- Average strength of new ties, and of previously existing weak ties, is stronger
- Average strength of old, strong ties, is weaker
The answer really depends on your goals. In my professional life, Social Networking is making things better as I meet more people and gain new opportunities. The entire Enterprise 2.0 conference is a direct result of my use of Social Networking tools. My social activities were also entirely the result of my Social Networking. On the whole good things.
That said, there is nothing like talking to good friends all night about anything and everything. My professional life exists to support my personal life, so the weakening of my personal ties is actually a concern.
Then there is Dunbar’s Number. Simply put, this is the number of stable social relationships that a person can maintain. The number is 150. So, with more professional relationships, personal ones will invariably be pushed aside. As bad as it sounds, this is probably a wash given that it is relationship 151 that will be dropped. If that particular relationship was more important to me, it wouldn’t be the one that gets neglected.
Let’s be fair, there is nothing stopping me from calling people like I used to do. on the other hand, there is nothing stopping them from calling either. It happens much less on both sides, so it isn’t just me.
Will I give up Facebook? No, it still serves a purpose that was not being met before. I am going to make a more concerted effort to connect the old fashion way with my close friends.
So excuse me while I go call my best man.