Sunday, April 22, 2007

Social Networking & “Small-Worlds” Theory

“Social Networking” is more than just a virtual party-coordination-system. It’s big business, and the rapid success of profession-networking site LinkedIn is leading the way. As a long-time writer on the theory of non-hierarchal networks, what I call "rhizome," I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring and join LinkedIn. So now that I’m there, what do I do? Conventional wisdom says to add your close associates to your network, and then expand outward in some logical manner by leveraging their network connections, gradually building a large and powerful network of contacts.

The “Small-Worlds” theory of networks, however, suggests a very different approach. According to this theory of organization, which I first wrote about in my 2004 book “A Theory of Power,” the true leverage in tying together a vast network lies in weak and distant connections. Borrowing an example from Mark Buchanan’s “Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks,” I stated:

“If…ten students had started some rumor that moved only between the best friends, it would have infected their own social group, but not much more. In contrast, a rumor moving along weaker links would go much farther (to more diverse social groupings). As in the case of people seeking jobs, information spreading along weak ties has a better chance to reach a large number of people.

Figure 1: Network topology graphic demonstrating the power of “weak” connections

From a social networking perspective, effort spent cultivating “near” connections online may be a waste—that is more properly the province of “real-world” connections, and doesn’t leverage the power of social networking systems (though capturing these existing “near” connections in a virtual context is critical). Effort spent cultivating “distant” contacts may yield the greatest reward. Perhaps the best measure of value from a “small-worlds” perspective is how FEW second or third-level connections two people share--a few distant contacts can span network space more efficiently, as fewer signal-distorting relays are required to connect any two nodes. Of course, just connecting to some random and “distant” person is of little value, as there is little weight behind recommendations or introductions, nor much incentive to provide the same. However, when the opportunity arises to make a “distant” connection, effort spent maintaining and deepening that connection is time well spent.

My Linkedin Profile


Tom said...

I have zero expertise on networks but if given a vote, I would go for breadth over depth. My experience is that more interesting connections have been made, especially in the sales realm, through distant, almost unknown members of my net than by those whom I know well.

When we were manufacturing and selling bearproof trash containers, I can't tell you the number of referals we received from people who had no more knowledge of us than having used our equipment. Conversely, we would go to trade shows and meet the same people year in and year out and rarely get a referal except from those who owned our equipment.

Count one vote for broader networks over deeper ones.

Shenanigoat said...

Hi Jeff. I love "Theory Of Power" and wondered for some time if you identified in a significant way with the ideas of transhumanism. I have a social network at that you or your readers may be interested in. It currently has only 80 members but I'm trying to grow it slowly to develop a closer knit community.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating idea.

I think the decision of whether to cultivate close or faraway connections depends on what you want to do.

Learning about new ideas - faraway connections.

Creating a mass movement by linking disparate groups - faraway connections.

Sharing unusual interests - faraway connections.

Activities that depend on physical presence - local connections.

Local food, local nature, local retailers, local politics, etc. - local connections. HOWEVER, it is nice to have a few people that have faraway connections.

I engage in both kinds of networks, though I spend most of my time with faraway people.

Energy Bulletin

Ryan said...

Jeff, if you haven't read Tipping Point yet, you really need to. I'll lend you my copy next time we meet up.

Jeff Vail said...

Read it. I'm working on another social-networking post that will deal with issues of Dunbar's Number, "mavens," and "connectors."

Randy Kirk said...

Ok sort of a left field comment I wonder if "fame" can be considered a large network? In that, if you define network as a knowledge and some sort of association with another person. TV brings some knowledge of certain people to the public, if distorted. If you are comfortable with someone and have some idea of them you can define that as someone in your network, although distant.

Leads me to this quote: "if you have a large network, you are like a rock star."

Russel S. Harris said...

my standard reply to LinkedIn invites from people I could care less about:

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.
Groucho Marx

Of course if we do know each other we connect, by phone, email or sms - accross the world. It's a small network, but one worth investing in.

Works for me.

Peter said...

Jeff, I stumbled across a post on someone else's blog about your book and rhizome networks.

This is a cut & paste of my response to that post:

I read Jeff's book back in the summer of 2005 and found it inspirational. In fact, A Theory of Power is one of the best books I have ever read. It's certainly not an easy read due to the density of ideas per paragraph. I had to read some sections three times while jotting down notes in the margins before it all sank in. But it's definitely worth the effort.

Since then my enthusiasm for the rhizome concept has waned. Why? Well, the vast majority of humanity simply wants to be distracted from having to think and put any extra effort into protecting its interests. People would rather hear about Paris Hilton's latest escapade than dialogue about how they are being screwed over in terms of, say, access to health care in the USA. Meanwhile there is always a small minority willing to put the extra effort in necessary to seize and maintain control over the majority.

How does this happen?

Chomsky explained it best in some documentary I rented from Netflix a year ago. He was being interviewed by a British anarchist who asked him what he thought of anarchism. Chomsky responded that he couldn't see it working simply because it requires participation in a lot of meetings and that's something few people have the discipline and temperament for. So if you want to take-over an anarchist group just demand endless meetings and then hold the votes after everyone else has gone home.

There's also Nietzsche's "will to power" drive. The few that have it always manage to exploit the many that don't. That's why Dick Cheney is worth about $200 million while Dennis Kucinich recently reported a net worth of about $50K.

The rhizome concept will go nowhere for these reasons.

~end of quote

I'll add this final point as someone who caught the tail end of the original hippie movement. (I should add that, sadly, I was too young to become my mother forbade it.) People who talk about egalitarian social structures and those hippie values, that are still near and dear to my heart, know nothing of power and what it takes to grab it and hold onto it. The Cheneys will always persevere over the Kucinichs and Pelosis.

Social networking is great for dating and sharing tips on job openings, but I can't see it being very helpful in the power arena. Until it is it's nothing more than a topic for academic discussions with little value out in the cold hard world.

Jeff Vail said...


I agree with your sentiment--while I never had great enthusiasm for the idea that rhizome would be the panacea for our world's problems, what enthusiasm I have had has also waned. The structure continues to fascinate me, and I am still of the opinion that it is potentially very powerful. But as a large-scale solution, not so much. I still think that it can be a powerful tool in uniting local or regional networks of "TAZ"-type structures. But can it replace our world political economy in the same way that you can upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows 2003? No chance (and that's discounting the good chance that you'll lose everything thanks to the genius of Microsoft!)...

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