Pawing through some work about the state of social networks recently I came across this interesting finding from the Pew Internet and American Life Project:
Self-selection for social networking site platforms means that LinkedIn users have more diverse social networks than users of other social networking site platforms.
According to their work – a survey of more than 2,200 adults age 18 and older published in 2011 – LinkedIn and Twitter users tend to have larger overall networks than average Americans, whether they use social networking sites or not. Close to 60% of connected Americans access a social network (this blows up to nearly 80% if you include blogs, as Nielsen does). Just more than 80% of the American population over 18 is online, and the average number of connections Pew reports is between 319 (18-34) and 198 (35-46). (The Facebook average is about 230).
There are a few facts about this that are worth unpacking. The first is that it should come as no surprise that the networks maintained through LinkedIn are more diverse than those maintained across a platform like Facebook. The networks people maintain through social networking sites are, on the whole, dominated by ties to high school friend groups. The largest single group of Facebook friends, for instance, are people from high school (22% of an average user's total friends list), followed by extended family (12% of) and then co-workers (10%) and other groups.
The professional orientation of LinkedIn, however, makes it more likely to support networks made up of coworkers, business contacts, and potential future connections than high school friends and immediate family. LinkedIn users are much more likely to use the site in order to build professional networks (particularly networks of professional outreach) on top of their existing networks. Professional networks are also more likely to be made up of loose ties with a wide range of the people; whereas personal networks on Facebook are more likely made up of strong ties with a smaller group of people.
That Twitter users tend to have larger overall networks than average Americans can similarly be traced back to the functionality and purpose of the service. Twitter has emerged as a site that is as much about breaking and sharing news as a site for finding out about the current status of a tight, personal network. For all the jokes about the platform being driven by updates about what people had for lunch, the warm embrace of brands, self-promoters, news companies, and entrepreneurial types has moved Twitter squarely towards a service serving as a valuable source for news 'as it happens.' This, combined with the low-demands of participation (enter a few details and watch the updates flow across your screen), results in an environment where users are encouraged follow a diverse range of people and services with whom they have maintain low degrees of direct engagement.
So what's the value of a diverse network?
Thinking through the distinctions between these networks I was reminded of a piece Jonah Lehrer wrote a few years ago highlighting two interesting studies that demonstrate the value of diverse networks for entrepreneurs. The first is a study by Paul Ingram and Michael Morris of Columbia who tracked the interactions of a group of business execs at a cocktail party. Despite the majority of people who attended doing so because they were looking to "expand their social network" and "network with as many different people as possible," most of them did not. Most spent time mixing with people like them (investment banker to investment banker). Notes Lehrer – "Instead of mixing with new people, the leaders made small talk with those from similar backgrounds; the smallness of their social world got reinforced." (Ingram and Morris measured the interactions between people with some electronic tracking advice).
The second piece Lehrer highlights is the work of Martin Reuf, a Princeton sociologist who studied the networks of 766 Stanford Business grads who had started their own businesses. While the bulk of these entrepreneurs had large but relatively homogenous networks, a small subset were embedded in much more diverse social networks. This subset, Reuf found, were much more innovative. Writes Lehrer:
Ruef then analyzed each of these entrepreneurs using an elaborate metric of innovation. He measured the number of patents they’d invented and kept track of all their trademarks. He rated the originality of their products and gave them bonus points if they’d “entered an unexploited niche” or pioneered a new marketing method. He then compared these innovation rankings to the structure of the entrepreneur’s social networks. The results were impressive: Business people with entropic networks were three times more innovative than people with predictable networks. Because they interacted with lots of different folks, they were exposed to a much wider range of ideas and “non-redundant information”. Instead of getting stuck in the rut of conformity – thinking the same tired thoughts as everyone else – they were able to invent startling new concepts.
Horses For Courses
Tied together, these two thoughts– about the diversity of connections in a professionally oriented social network such as LinkedIn and the entrepreneurial value of maintaining a heterogenous network– point once again to the lessons about where and how ideas are generated and fostered. It is difficult to displace the value of scale that comes from the reach Facebook offers. It offers something amazing in terms of sheer volume of conversation and potential interactions. But scale might not be worth all it is cracked up to be if it results in homogeneity, for either the entrepreneurial class or brands; having the same conversation time and again is less likely to push thinking forward than encountering thinking that pushes you in new directions.