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When is it OK to friend, follow, and connect with everyone?

When Should I Friend Everybody? Is it okay to dilute your social graph? Are you ready for the dark side?

A question cropped up at Gist a few weeks ago (disclaimer: Gist is a client) about whether it would be useful to import 20,000 Twitter followers into Gist. Would importing that many people be useful, or just noise? The larger question is: when is it okay to dilute your social graph? I think the answer is when you start to approach your professional career as a mini-marketer of your personal brand. In other words, when you look at social networks as a source of customers and friends. This is something a lot of people are starting to do. What I don’t know is if it will become a necessity for getting ahead (due to the competition).

Social networks have been around since the late 90s, but the term “social graph” became much more pervasive with the launch of the Facebook platform. A “social graph” is basically a model of a network of relationships. Facebook tries to model your real-life relationships. LinkedIn attempts to model your professional relationships. Twitter is known for lightweight asymmetrical (follower and following) relationships.

Each of these services’ attempts to represent your social graph are inaccurate. Your Facebook friends aren’t necessarily your real friends. Your LinkedIn connections aren’t always your real-world business connections. Your Twitter followers (and friends) often have little or no relationship to you in the off-line world.

With each service, there is an oversimplification of the weight (or strength) of the relationship (high school friends aren’t really friends). Also, since it is so easy to add connections, the important connections can be hard to find. However, each service does have its own unique ways to “weight the edges” of the social graph. Facebook seems the most personal. If two people are in a photo together the relationship can be inferred to be stronger. LinkedIn has references to companies where you may have worked together. Twitter has at-replies, re-tweets, and lists.

I’m also fascinated by the ability to game these services. For example on Facebook you could target specific interest groups, participate in discussion and become friends with the members of the group. LinkedIn has “Open Networking” groups that exist solely to “connect” with members of the group. Twitter is the easiest to game, because it is a well known that about 40% of the people you follow will follow you back. There is even software to exploit the follow-back phenomenon.

Why is this dangerous? This is dangerous because perception is everything. A colleague was astonished by someone who had 25,000 twitter followers. In fact, this was a person who was also following 25,000 people. In this case thousands of followers doesn’t indicate authority, it indicates a person gaming the system.

Similarly, having thousands of LinkedIn connections doesn’t mean you are a fabulous famous person. More likely it means you have spent hours cultivating your list. Social networks will always make it easy for users to invite their friends and create more connections. Therefore, they will always be game-able.

To be honest I empathize with the gamers a lot. Some of us just prefer to spend hours online finding new friends rather than doing it in real life. I think it is fun and useful to be aware of these techniques, and use them to when appropriate to boost your standing. Real world networking – speaking at a conference, shaking hands and having conversations – always trumps digital networking, but it takes much more effort. To achieve equal footing with digital connections, you need more of them.

When you start seeing your friends, connections, and followers as customers and friends, it follows logically that you should have as many as possible. At that point you will appreciate the social networks from a new perspective, and start optimizing for numbers rather than depth. Large numbers of followers means every link you drop will get more clicks. On LinkedIn, every search performed by others is more likely to reveal you as the expert. Having more connections (even weak connections) does have a unique value.

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18 Comments

  1. Adam –

    I agree that perception is important. I also think that there is a growing cult of celebrity in larger society that makes people famous for being famous (think: Levi Johnston) and that it’s easy to be awed by social media practitioners with tens of thousands of contacts.

    That being said, some of the people with many, many contacts are actually quite good at what they do: connecting people with similar or disparate interests to each other and facilitating the “weak ties” that allow you and I to ask a question on Vark and have it answered within minutes, accurately, by someone halfway around the world whom we’ve never met.

    I have two suggestions for ferreting out the people who say they’re famous in social media and are actually not so famous — or, as you say, gaming the system — and they are relatively easy to implement. First, engage in a true conversation with the networker. Pick up the phone and talk to them, or send them a heartfelt email. I’ve had the experience of meeting a new friend with lots of teach me (great) and the experience of feeling that I’d walked into a timeshare presentation (sub-optimal). Second, you can find through various sources what other people say about the networker. If all references are positive (or most), then you’ve found someone for whom numbers of connections and the quality of that connection are in sync.

    Thanks for your post — great thoughts!

    -Greg

  2. Twitter is a well known medium and it should be used with a lot of care especially since a lot of people are using it these days. Also nowadays twitter is getting more cautious in banning users who are having instant large number of followers as a means of advertising.

  3. Having a wide circle is not necessarily a bad thing. While you must be wary of diluting your message it is important that you make an attempt to expand your audience.

  4. Personally I keep my real friends as my friends on facebook and get rid of all that are not. Personally I don’t care for the 20k plus followers you can get on twitter, but for a business i can see it’s worth.

  5. Social networks are becoming over abused. There are a lot of copy cat networks as well. It is quite overwhelming. MySpace has become a joke. Facebook is still good, but hopefully people continue to use it for it’s ultimate purpose.

  6. What makes facebook great is that it is a true social network and most of it is uncrawlable. people feel comfortable on it with real profiles and actually communicate with eachother. Hopefully facebook will not lose site of its real purpose for potential financial gains that could ultimately cause it to crash.

  7. As more and more people compete to achieve their goals through social networks , these sites are becoming more and more spammy day by day

  8. I so agree with that. When you start to get updates from people you don’t know, it’s time to trim your list of “friends.”

  9. Social Media and social networking is really a fascinating process. However, like all practices (for a lack of a better word), it gets diluted. I’ve always been a proponent of “quality over quantity”. For instance…I have a facebook page, but not a lot of friends. In fact, I don’t really connect to a lot of people there. It’s more of a place to submit my blog. Although, I guess it would be more helpful if there were more people to read it! My twitter has been pretty automated-I don’t touch it a lot. However, I agree with Adam when he says perception is everything. Be it social media or SEO (often the two coincide), content is everything.

  10. Twitter is one of the biggest social sites and it has been used by many people. But twitter take precaution like banning the users which having instant large number of followers which make there account only for advertising.

  11. I like to have as many followers and friends as i can. Because if i have a question, i can have many opinions about that.

    Twitter saved me once, on a print ork. Had nowhere to go at 4 am to print a brochures, and some guy, was on twitter that had a print shop and saved my day (night)

  12. I only follow those that truly interest me, ie topic, niche etc.

    Blindly following will means you have too much un-realted data to sort through.

  13. Hi Adam,
    I really enjoyed this post, everyone appears to be running “square circles” online. Chasing numbers is not actually creating a business, whereas communication and dedication to build something of value is an asset.
    One does however need a market, and affiliate marketing appears to thrive by what some say in Facebook due to the traction they have obtained from hours of laborious work obtaining numbers. The question is are they selling themselves and making the cash or is this a hoodwink.
    Unless you are able to offer something of value – why chase numbers on social sites rather spend the time and effort finding folk looking for assistance, where you are able to render assistance.
    Excellent post topic, unfortunately this is a Global Village and we have to move with technology.

  14. I don’t really connect to a lot of people in social networking sites.Just,I will submit my site in, most of the PR web directories and then go to social networking sites.While,I am not prefer…b’coz i am not spend many hours in front of social networking sites..

  15. One does however need a market, and affiliate marketing appears to thrive by what some say in Facebook due to the traction they have obtained from hours of laborious work obtaining numbers. The question is are they selling themselves and making the cash or is this a hoodwink.

  16. The number of twitter followers can be increased if you are following more of them, but it’s good to keep the number of followers greater than number of following. 🙂