A few weeks ago, I received a message in my LinkedIn mailbox. The sender indicated that she was looking for someone to fill a rather substantial contract position, and would I please come and talk with her about it. I didn’t know this person directly, but a quick search through LinkedIn showed that she had only been in her new position for a few months and we had several connections in common, though no one that I knew very well. Nonetheless, we arranged a meeting a few days later.
At that meeting, she asked me, “Do you know…” and she floated a name. My first response was blank, that I didn’t know that common connection, but then a tiny distant bell rang in a dusty dark corner of my mind. The mutual connection was a volunteer secretary for an organization that I belong to in another city where I used to live about a decade ago. The power of networking, indeed!
The Power of Weak TiesIn 1973, Mark S. Granovetter published what would become a highly-cited article about the strength of weak ties. He was one of the first to recognize and demonstrate that opportunities come to us not just through our close friends with whom we have contact regularly and deeply, but often through weak ties with people we don’t know well but whose social networks overlap our own. While Granovetter’s research is heavily detailed and laden with diagrams showing various types of weak ties between individuals and groups, the main take-away is that social networks rise and fall on distant connections, not just close ones. And this was before the mainstream Internet.
Fast forward a few decades and Nicholas Christakis, co-author of Connected, uses new social data to show that people two or three connections away from us can have very important impacts on our lifestyle, emotions, and behavioral choices, even if we don’t know it. Christakis and Fowler have shown that obesity spreads through social networks like an epidemic. They have shown that both happiness and sadness can be contagious. These networks are far from linear. They are very complex, beautiful, and ubiquitous.
Yet when most of us hear the term social network, we think about Facebook and other online social gathering places. Granovetter’s work clearly predates Mark Zukerberg, cofounder of Facebook, and Christakis’s book uses data that was gathered decades earlier. These social phenomena have been around since the dawn of humanity, not just the dawn of the World Wide Web. Why?Brains Structured for Connection
Our brain structure is old and created for a very different environment. Today, we could argue that we are on Brain Version 3. Paul Maclean’s triune model of the brain posits that our brain has three parts which have evolved over time. The first part is the reptilian complex of the brain, which includes the basal ganglia. This part of our brain is largely responsible for fight or flight, reproduction, and other instincts necessary for basic survival. The second part of our brain is the mammalian complex. Here we find the limbic system: emotions, reasoning, and parental behavior. So, for example, when mammals are born, they emit a helpless cry and their parents will find them, feed them, and care for them. When reptiles are born, they are largely self-sufficient and don’t have a helpless cry. If they make noise, their parents might eat them.Version 3 of our brain developed with the neo-mammalian complex. This part of our brain, also sometimes referred to as the human brain (though potentially other species have some elements of this too), helps us to navigate complex situations. This cerebral neocortex allows us to think strategically, forecast the implications of our decisions, and see the bigger picture. It also allows us to prepare a dinner party when we know that Mary is vegetarian, Astrid doesn’t like Philip, and Amy is allergic to nuts. Our ability to plan and strategize in social situations comes from this part of our brain.
Yet this brain structure has been in place for thousands of years. Maybe longer. We are arguably hard-wired for face-to-face real time social interactions.
What Does Research Tell Us about Social Networks?
Consider some recent studies that have come out.
In a Canadian study of happiness by Helliwell and Huang, doubling the number of “real” friends (as opposed to online friends) produces a significant effect on well-being, increasing it by 50%! The size of your online network, however, is not correlated with well-being. So don’t be envious of those people with 5000+ connections on LinkedIn. They aren’t getting any happiness boost out of it.In fact, people who have been recently widowed or divorced need these real connections even more than others. Loneliness can actually damage your immune system and Christakis’ research has demonstrated that for virtual connections to have any positive benefit for our networking, those connections must “be real or feel real.”
In this day of Skype and home-to-home video conferencing, we might think that we are actually communicating face-to-face in real time. However it turns out that not all emotional cues are available through facial expressions. In fact, in moments of intense emotions, both positive and negative, body language can be more telling. You can’t see that on your computer screen.
Furthermore, researchers Willcox and Stephen find that social networks, such as Facebook, might actually cause us harm by inflating our self-esteem and our self-control.
Technology has evolved. For our own well-being and social networking benefits, we still need to meet with people in real time. Videoconferencing is great, but business travel didn’t grind to a complete halt after several terrorist attacks and attempts involving aircraft. Why? Because we still recognize the critical importance of getting in the same physical room as someone else to make meaningful connections. It’s a return on our investment, even from a business point of view.
Take-awaysThere are two lessons that I draw from all of this research.
- Get out with real people. I tend to be a bit of a Facebook addict, and I’m inspired by people who turn off Facebook for extended periods of time in order to have meaningful connections with the real world. Of course, social networks do make it easier to stay in touch. Returning to my original contract connection, once I moved a decade ago, I stayed in touch with people via LinkedIn and Facebook. No doubt that kept me on someone’s radar screen so that she could put me in touch with a hiring manager who needed someone to fill a seat. Most of my professional opportunities have come through weak ties that I met first in real life and stayed connected with through social media.
- Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet. This is a truism that often floats around Pinterest and Facebook. It’s so very important. You never know when a weak tie will emerge years later. The world, even at 7 billion people, is smaller than you think. Your network is tighter than you realize, and highly influential. Seed your network with positivity and kindness. The benefits spread and, like karma, come back to you.
Willcox, K. & Stephen, A. (2012). Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control. Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 12-57. Soon to be published in Journal of Consumer Behavior. Abstract. Summarized in ScienceDaily (2013, January 14). Social networks may inflate self-esteem, reduce self-control.
Christakis, N.A. & Fowler, J.H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.
N.A. Christakis & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, 35: 370-379.
Granoveter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360-1380.
Helliwell, & Huang (2013). Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-line Friends. National Bureau of Economic Research. Abstract.
From the Christakis Research ImagesCompfight with a
Creative Commons license
Baby Aligators courtesy of Tim Pearce, Los Gatos
Puppies feeding courtesy of The Girl in the Picture
Video connection courtesy of Lars Plougmann
Be kind courtesy of jeffsmallwood