Quantity, Not Necessarily Quality, Matters

By Christian Buckley posted 01-23-2012 10:43


I overheard two friends in as many days making the same comments about their social networks -- they were in the process of shutting down their networks, decreasing the number of people they connect with, in an effort to simplify the amount of data hitting them. One friend is decreasing the number of people he follows in Twitter, the other shutting down his Facebook profile to only include a small (under 50) circle of close family and friends (not including me). Both are doing this, for the most part, to limit the noise coming through these channels.

But they miss the point, and the network effect.

By limiting the number of voices and the amount of data coming into their networks, they lose the ability to filter those voices and find new ideas, new innovations. A couple years back I blogged on a great presentation given by Malcolm Gladwell at Microsoft in which he discussed ideas from his then new book, Outliers. One story he shared was about the dominance of sub-Saharan runners in the Olympics:

Mr. Gladwell opened his presentation by telling the audience that the most pressing topic on his mind was something that came to him after finishing his book, and that had he been able, he would have included it as a chapter. His idea was the capitalization of innovation, or, more specifically, our ability to capitalize on talent. To put this into context, he gave the example of Olympic-quality long distance runners. For the last century, the relative quality of athletes in developed nations was fairly equal. But something has changed over the last few decades -- the quality and quantity of superior runners out of east-African countries has eclipsed that of the historically dominant countries. US, UK, German and Russian athletes, for example, have fought for decades for mastery with very little differentiation between them as far as training, talent, and results. But now? The difference between results of the leaders and the rest of the pack is enormous.

The sport is now completely dominated by one geographic area (the last time the US medaled in the 10,000 Meter was 1964). Gladwell provided some insight into why this was happening, sharing with the audience that while there are hundreds or even thousands of prospective runners in the US, only a handful qualify at the level necessary to compete at the Olympics. However, in Ethiopia and Kenya, there are a few million youth who are running 10+ miles a day, every day. It has become a way of life for millions of youth. And with that large of a base to begin with, its no wonder that there are more qualified runners -- and far superior runners -- than almost every other country. It's now part of their culture to run - something that will be difficult for other nations to overcome. Ethiopia and Kenya have both learned to capitalize on this outpouring of talent by offering various levels of training and competition, starting at early stages, to refine and develop their Olympians from a wide and deep pool of talent.

The concept which Ethiopia and Kenya have tapped into is the idea that the larger the pool of runners, the better their chances of finding the best runners. Translate that back into my friends and their waning belief in the power of social networks, and hopefully you can see my point. By limiting their networks, they limit the flow of information that they can tap into.

I understand their frustration with the amount of content pouring out of these networks, but their solution is misplaced. The answer is to create better filters. For Facebook, I solved this by creating two separate accounts -- one for family members only, and the other for everyone else. I spend the vast majority of my Facebook time in my main account, but when I want to have a filtered discussion, or share private media with just my extended family members, I have a platform. In Twitter, my solution was Tweetdeck (Hootsuite is also a great tool) and the creation of different columns, offering filtered views of the world. At first, I was careful about following people, thinking I would control the volume of chatter. But I noticed that I was missing much of the conversation happening around topics I cared about. So I began to be much more liberal with who I added (if you are involved in SharePoint, I'll add you), because I just didn't know where the "nuggets" of information would be coming from. Once my network more than tripled, I then created  columns to be able to watch conversations happening around key topics and events, as well as industry leaders and competitors. Since making this shift, Twitter via Tweetdeck has become a major technology and competitor research engine for me.

In short, it is by expanding your social connections that you broaden your view of your company, your industry, your world. To make social networking work, you need to think more broadly, go big, and filter filter filter.  

#socialmedia #disruptors #buckleyplanet #enterpriseapplications #socialcomputing #changemanagement