The digital landscape makes it clear that individuals are employing multiple sources of information, are members of diverse, sparsely-knit and specialized interest groups, and access both online and mobile applications via a wide range of media. We no longer function in small, local, interest-based groups, but rather society has moved toward a new social order, which Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman term networked individualism. This creates a need for each individual, social group, and corporation to make large investments of time, effort, and creativity into building, creating, and maintaining their unique social network. But, to what extent are digital networks relevant to the business world?
The Spread of Digital Social Networks
Recent data from the PEW Internet and American Life Project shows that over half of adults belong to Facebook or Twitter, and as much as 80 percent of young Americans are connected via a social networking site. Young people are hyperconnected via the Internet, cell phones, and tablets. Penetration rates worldwide are skyrocketing with the number of unique IP addresses growing from 4.3 billion to 340 undecillion (that’s 340 trillion trillion trillion). With the increased ubiquity of mobile technologies, there is little doubt that digital social networks have enormous value, increasing not only the speed of communication, but also our potential for innovation and creativity.
An analysis of Twitter posts shown in Figure 1 about the London 2012 Olympic Games show where the key clusters of communication are located, who the active participants are, what tweets and re-tweets are relevant and, finally, what the overall size and structure of the network is. These kinds of analysis allow us to quickly analyze how a topic evolves and what kinds of information are trendy on a global sphere.
What complicates digital hyperconnectivity is that unlike in-person encounters, it requires great investments of time and effort. An online identity is only visible if a person has made the effort of creating, curating, and managing that identity, and taken the time to connect it to other people, companies, and sites. An unconnected profile is as good as a nonexistent one.
The relevance of an online identity becomes quickly apparent when we realize that the first thing most of us do when we meet someone is to conduct a search on their name, see what we can find, and then connect to them via one or multiple social media applications. Search results reveal not only who people are (e.g., what they like, what their hobbies are), but also more importantly, these results show to whom they are connected. Knowing to whom someone is connected can tell us a lot about who they are. For managerial jobs, for example, being connected to the right people is as important as any skill set or degree that a job candidate may have. The old adage continues to be important and can be even extended: “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know and how you are connected to those you know.” These connections can be a great asset to a company and takes time and effort to cultivate.
With more people connecting digitally than ever before, understanding the intricacies of digital connectivity becomes increasingly important. The problem is that these social digital networks often become unwieldy, difficult to manage, and ineffective. Not properly leveraging digital social networks comes with a high cost of jeopardizing valuable digital social capital. This loss is similar to that of not taking care of one’s capital investments.
The Value of Digital Social Capital
Social capital is the relationships forged through social interactions, networks and connections, and the resources available through these relationships. The concept is best understood in relation to economic and human capital. Economic capital refers to capital of monetary or exchange-value that allows companies to acquire physical capital and labor. Human capital describes the economic and social gains obtained through a person’s education, knowledge, and skill set. By contrast, the social capital concept recognizes that investment into social networks increases productivity and access to valuable resources such as information, influence, know-how, financial aid, social support, etc.
Social capital is directly linked to trust and reciprocity. People give without expecting immediate returns creating an atmosphere of mutuality. Therefore, it is essential for managers, organizations, and non-profits to understand the concept of social capital and how it can be enhanced.
The benefits derived from social capital can be viewed as either private-effects or public-effects. Private-effects are benefits brought to individuals through their ties, while public-effects are all those positive characteristics of living in densely knit and reciprocal communities. For example, a person finding a job with the help of a friend represents the benefits of private-effects, whereas feeling safe at night on the streets because neighbors are watching out for each other is an instance of the advantages accrued through public-effects.
The social capital concept is not new. What is new is the means by which social networks can be built, maintained, and leveraged. Social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Flickr, are accelerating the rate at which we can expand and diversify our networks. Relations that were hard to maintain can now be easily kept dormant on a social networking site to be activated in due time.
Building the Right Kind of Digital Network
Three key strategies are relevant when it comes to building and maintaining digital social networks:
1. Expanding digital social networks.
Network size matters and social media have largely facilitated our ability to build large online networks with little effort. Students in my “Social Networking in Everyday Life” course will often report having over a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook. Of course, we all know that these are not all real friends. Work by danah boyd at Microsoft Research shows that our concept of what a friend is has changed since the introduction of social media. While many online connections are made up of close friends and family, not all online connections are of equal relevance and importance. Because adding people to Facebook or LinkedIn is effortless, we may feel inclined to grow these networks out of proportion. Not being aware of the size of one’s network can lead to an unwieldy and difficult to manage social structure.
Research on Web 2.0 audiences demonstrates that there is great value in being connected to a large, expansive, and sparsely-knit network. If you are looking for information or you are interested in disseminating information then having a large audience can help. There is certainly a difference in streaming a tweet to only 100 followers and streaming a tweet to 10,000 followers. In addition, once that tweet gets re-tweeted by even 2 percent, the effect of networks really becomes evident.
2. Diversifying digital social networks.
Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University, proposed the Strength of Weak Ties Theory. In his essay, he pointed out that strong ties are important because they provide emotional, social, and financial support in difficult times, but that the importance of weak ties could not be ignored. Strong ties are individuals who one trusts, with whom one has frequent contact, and who provide social support in times of need. His theory advocated that weak ties were unique in their role of transferring new types of information into a network. When individuals relying on weak ties to seek a job were compared with those relying on strong ties, the results revealed that weak ties were much more effective. Not only that, weak ties often led to better jobs. This demonstrates the need to integrate a good mix of weak and strong ties into one’s digital social network. Moreover, weak-weak ties are much more easily established on social media sites than strong ties, as social barriers are reduced online and connecting to ‘friends of friends’ is socially acceptable. Conventions are different in digital environments facilitating the establishment of diverse digital networks.
Ron Burt, Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, introduced the concept of brokerage and closure. Brokers are those individuals who “stand at the intersection of social worlds.” They bring value to an organization by transferring information, knowledge, and other resources from one network or cluster to another. These brokerage positions are central to innovation and creativity as they question held assumptions, spark new ideas, and provide alternative perspectives. The concept of closure comes from densely-knit, highly cohesive social networks, where people know each other well and are hyperconnected. The greatest advantage of closure is enhanced collective action. These two mechanisms—brokerage and closure—directly contribute to social competition and selection. This highlights the importance for organizations, managers, and human resources departments to recognize these brokerage positions and provide the necessary institutional support for them to flourish. It also highlights the need to create these positions if they are not available because they will help break into new markets and foment the development of innovative ideas.
3. Nurturing digital social networks.
Technology alone is not social capital. Building a digital social network is just the first step; what takes much more effort and commitment is the nurturing and maintenance of already established linkages. Personal networks are easier to maintain than professional networks. It is much easier for me to write on a friend’s wall even if I have not talked to him or her in a few months than it is to just simply drop someone I met once at a conference a line out of the blue. Hence, to keep those social ties active, it is important to periodically update one’s profile, add likes to information posted by others, comment on others’ content, and re-tweet relevant posts. To truly engage with digital social networks, we must care about the content and be passionate about our engagement.
The majority of social media sites provide individuals with the opportunity to personalize their profile, highlighting information and aspects of themselves that are a reflection of their interests, hobbies, and practices. This helps in developing digital social capital through the establishment of meaningful linkages. Those who use social media effectively can obtain big gains both short-term and long-term.
To sum up, an effective digital social network is not too dense, nor too sparse, not clustered, but with multiple connections, and includes a good mix of weak and strong ties.
Putting Digital Networks into Action
Network ties are only useful if they can be activated when needed. Ties for the most part are dormant or latent as they are connections of potential value but with little return. Six principles help with putting digital networks into action.
1. Network awareness.
Social media provides a series of features for analyzing the intricacies of your network, showing possibilities afforded and potential constraints. To mobilize network resources effectively one needs to understand what kinds of knowledge, skill set, and capabilities are embedded in the network. If you realize that your network consists primarily of people who are good at solving problems, but lacks broad, creative thinkers, it is time to expand the network to include new connections. A review of profiles, descriptions, and information posted will quickly provide insight into the characteristics of the digital social network composition.
2. Chain linkages.
Make effective use of one, two, and even three degrees of separation. The notion of degrees of separation describes access to the resources of individuals in a network that we are connected to through friends or ‘friends of friends.’ Experiments conducted by Milgram demonstrated that Americans are connected to each other by on average three friendship links. This level of hyperconnectivity is even more enhanced online, where our networks can spread widely. Understanding the notion of chain linkage becomes central in accessing resources and information that is embedded in removed and formerly unconnected networks through these weak ties. Twitter and Facebook are effective in helping not only in locating and accessing these resources, but also in disseminating information strategically to them.
Latent ties refer to relationships that have yet to be formally developed, but rather have had the foundation set for friendship formation through the networking power of technology.
3. Grabbing audience attention.
The production of information and cultural goods has grown exponentially, leading toward information overload. Moreover, we continue to add network-based means of communication to our daily routines. This makes it more necessary than ever to be precise and creative when it comes to expressing one’s digital identity. In Canada, Tim Hortons is probably one of the most successful online companies with about 2 million likes. Not only is the company’s web site very popular, it draws a very loyal audience that updates content, likes new images, and keeps up-to-date with trends and sales. Facebook users who have liked Tim Hortons get information about new products and updates to their menu directly posted to their news feed. This shows a direct attempt on the part of Tim Hortons to reach out to customers in those places where customers spend the most time, namely on Facebook.
Figure 2. Tim Hortons’ Facebook page
4. Leveraging network effects.
Network effects take place when information moves rapidly across diverse groups, geographic distances, and platforms. Messages relayed through a network can quickly become viral. When information is diffused through groups, it tends to stay within these groups, whereas when diffused through networks, information tends to move quickly from one node to another without boundaries constraining the flow. The 2012 KONY video is a good example of the power of social networks because the video managed to reach 100 million views within only 6 days of being released. This kind of rapid mobilization of information and media presence is unprecedented.
5. Generalized reciprocity.
Social capital facilitates the flow of resources because it is based on norms of generalized reciprocity. Generalized reciprocity is expressed in the notion of doing favors and providing help to others without expecting the other person to return the favor immediately. The underlying assumption is that at a future point in time when one is in need, the favor will be returned. In the case of generalized reciprocity the favor does not necessarily have to be returned by the same person, thus, the notion “what comes around goes around” applies to this kind of altruistic behavior.
6. Serendipity in digital social networks.
Serendipity refers to the idea of encountering information or resources accidentally, without explicitly looking for them. This is an important aspect of how our online networks work. We often encounter information accidentally on Twitter or Facebook that we were not explicitly looking for, but that is relevant to our current work. Promoting these kinds of encounters is relevant for innovation and creativity.
7. Homophily effects: “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Research demonstrates that building an effective network takes a bit more work than just growing a network. Social networks are not created randomly and the same logic applies to digital networks. We do not befriend someone on Facebook and follow someone on Twitter just randomly, but rather these connections are often based on mutual interests, a sharing of similar beliefs, belonging to the same work or social groups, joining similar clubs, or ‘friends of friends’ ties. Hence, we usually tend to be friends with people who are similar to us. And this is not only a good thing, but it is also important when it comes to understanding how audiences work in a digital network. When you send out a tweet, you don’t want your Twitter audience to ignore your message, but rather you hope to create buzz. That is, messages have to be relevant to the audience.
The power of digital friends is often dismissed, but sociological theory shows that digital networks are becoming increasingly important for the success of individuals, groups, and corporations. Investing time and effort into Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other social media applications may seem to be a loss of productivity at first, but there is valuable digital social capital embedded in these networks. Ample evidence shows that leveraging these networks can not only lead to increases in productivity, but also that digital social networks are particularly important for the flow of resources, coordinated action, creativity, and innovation. Much attention needs to be paid to how digital social networks are created, developed, maintained and ultimately leveraged in the context of networked work. Success is directly linked to establishing the right kind of digital network—not too dense, nor too sparse, not clustered, but with multiple connections, and including a good mix of weak and strong ties.
About the Author
Anabel Quan-Haase, PhD, Psych Dip, MSc is an Associate Professor of Information and Media Studies and Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Dr. Quan-Haase is the director of the SocioDigital Lab and the author of two books and over 40 articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings. She has given over 50 national and international conference presentations. Her research examines how digital technologies have affected social networks and identifies what factors affect network structure, creation and maintenance over time in physical and digital spaces.
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