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Value of Social, Business Networks Not Found in Size Alone


First Published: Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology – January 11, 2008.

Most of us were raised with the notion that it’s not what you know but who you know that matters. There are enough exceptions to this rule to reconsider its guidance, but there is some truth in the moral. The meteoric rise of social and business networking tools is testimony to the “who versus what” argument. These web tools thrive on the premise that knowing more people is in some way better than knowing fewer people. If the size of your network does actually matter, are there ways to measure that? Does bigger mean more rewarding relationships, or is it just the price of admission into the status-driven social circles of online networking?

Last month, I was part of a two-day intensive workshop hosted at youth-focused marketers AMP Agency in downtown Boston. The workshop focused on how the emerging Millennial generation perceives the world we live in. No one will be surprised to hear that social networking is as much a part of their lifestyle as their attachment to cell phones. What is interesting is the rate at which these networks can grow with little consideration for the quality of the connection. A student entering college can have hundreds of so-called friends from that college before they even set foot on campus. According to the Millennials interviewed, there is safety in numbers. Having a hundred friends on your social network infers social acceptance or status.

In her studies of generation gaps and the economics of these gaps, Framingham-based Sharon Wulf, of Enterprise Systems, has noticed similar patterns. For younger users, the size of the network matters more than the strength of the relationship. Wulf, who has taught Millennials at universities like Boston University and Northeastern University and frequently speaks on this subject for her Fortune 500 clients, says 20-somethings are more interested in appearing to be connected than actually being connected. This has obvious economic interests for companies trying to use social networking as a marketing tool.

There is significant social, albeit virtual, status attributed to those members of a network that have hundreds of connections. This has raised concerns for members and network owners alike to the point where some business networks only show your network size to a certain ceiling. Publicly showing off your network size is still a big deal, but what real value does it have?

Now that the initial excitement of building massive social networks has started to fade, it appears that in many cases it’s not the size that matters. For businesspeople, we find the size of our networks being less important than the degree of trust between each connection. Social and business networks have been slow to measure the trust level between members so it’s hard to display this value publicly. Knowing who trusts you and is more likely to make a referral or work with you has always been the holy grail of business networking.

To describe levels of trust between members the next generation of social networking tools might offer a way to show the strength of the relationship. In an interesting anecdotal example of how these tools might play out, we heard of a girl that dumped her boyfriend because he changed his social status on Facebook from “in a relationship” to “single.” While Generation X members have been accused of using e-mail to end relationships, switching network status takes the virtual breakup to a new level. In follow-up meetings with students from local schools like Babson College and Berklee College of Music, they confirmed that this type of relationship communication is uncommon but acceptable for their generation.

The jury might still be out on this one, but we could be entering a counterintuitive and paradoxical phase of the social network. In this phase, both the size and quality of connections count for different reasons. The size of your network conveys popularity while trust establishes your longevity as a member of the network. Think of the size of your network being your marketing department while the strength of your connections is your customer service department. Size offers instant rank in your social or business network while the strength of your connections suggests integrity.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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