The Real Value of Social Media is its Weakness
January 12, 2010
Many still doubt the utility of social media. I myself was among the doubters until I was forced onto Twitter and Facebook to test the social media integration for a web site I was developing. That’s when I discovered that, although Sturgeon’s Law applies to social media as much as anything else, the small percentage of “good stuff” is exceedingly valuable.
Case in point is this article: In a pinch, Twitter found a long shot source | By Daniel Victor. Stuck playing catch up on a story on a Sunday evening, with deadline looming, journalist Daniel Victor turned to Twitter in a last ditch search for sources. Long story short, Twitter came through for him.
The value of social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook is not immediately obvious to some (it wasn’t to me), and may even be counter intuitive. I’ve heard complaints that it’s difficult or impossible to form deep relationships through digital media, and Luddite sentiment that we should turn back to “face time” in our relationships. I disagree with the idea that deep relationships cannot be formed online, but the real value of social media is not in the deep relationships. It’s in the weak ties.
According to network theory, it’s the weak ties in a social network that transfer the most value (by social network here we are not talking about the online space, but connections between people however they are formed and maintained). Those to whom we are closely connected obviously are valuable to us for personal reasons, but when it comes to economic value, it’s the casual acquaintances who add the most value.
When you are looking for a job, a client, a customer, it is the people in the periphery of your network who can connect you to valuable resources you would not otherwise have found. A former co-worker has a cousin who is looking for someone with just your skills, that sort of thing. Malcolm Gladwell called these people connectors, because they move in and out of many circles, cross-pollinating them like a (forgive the phrase) social butterfly.
The power of social media technologies is that they grease the proverbial skids. Using these new tools, we can all become connectors. The technology enables us to manage a larger number of weak ties than Dunbar would otherwise permit, thereby increasing the size and theoretical value of our personal network. You might only “know” a hundred people in “real life”, but your network on Twitter and LinkedIn might contain 500 links or more. And while all those folks won’t come to your sister’s wedding, at least a few would be happy to connect you to a local political operator to help you with a story for your paper, as Daniel Victor discovered.
The true value of social media is not the strong connections it enables, but the weak ones.