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.