With our growing social networks, the concept of 6 degrees of separation is now hopelessly out of date. The web has increased the ease with which we can now stay in touch with more people than ever meaning that the real figure was calculated in 2002 to be more like 3.5 degrees of separation, and now the figure is almost certainly much less. The fact remains that it really is certainly a small world and it is getting smaller all the time.
In his book Linked, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi argues that scale-free networks pervade our world from the internet, to the metabolic network of protein-protein interactions inside cells, to the social ties that link networks of directors of Fortune 500 companies, to the transmition of Aids, to the network of Hollywood Actors. These networks have a number of peculiar traits from the importance of hubs or connectors, to being very robust and resistant to random errors but susceptible to targeted or malicious attack. Interestingly Barabasi argues that the 20th Century was about reducing the world into its constituent parts, whereas the 21st century is about putting them back together again. With our focus on new unexpected of extreme collaborations, I am hoping this is one area where NESTA Connect can make a difference.
There is only one letter that differentiates ‘networking’ from ‘not working’ and the boozy networking lunch is often mocked as a jolly. And yet it is often said that it is not know-how but know-who that really makes the difference. Ron Burt, the Chicago based sociologist shows that interacting with the usual suspects leads to recycling of old ideas whereas having just a few weak ties to a number of different clusters or areas of expertise can have a marked impact on the number and quality of ideas, leading to new innovations.
I would estimate that I have 7 or 8 key clusters of friends/contacts with whom I stay in touch without too much effort but I have no idea how these networks interlink or how big a network that could potentially plug me into. The challenge is, of course, finding the right path through these networks to achieve your objective and as with any new terrain, it would really help to have some kind of map. This is the one thing that puts most people off networking as it can appear random and pointless.
How about as a first step, we ask nicely that the clever and cash rich people at Google and facebook or linkedin mashup their databases to show how our personal and professional networks actually connect. Now that would be worth a few pence on the share price I’m sure.
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Very nice article. Gladwells Book “The Tipping Point” and “The Influentials” by Edward and Jonathan also strongly back up Barabasi’s research. However not everyone agrees – just recently Duncan Watts, a professor at Columbia University, is suggesting based on computer simulations that concentrating on your strongest connections does is not always the best thing to do! http://adage.com/digital/article?article_id=119274
Thanks Ken. I think sociologists now talk about the importance of weak ties. i.e. tapping into a wide array of different networks in a small way can be more powerful than tapping in to a core network in a big way.
For every theory, there is a counter theory. I hope that we can create some experiments that go beyond the theories and actually demonstrate how these network interactions actually happen. Any ideas?
There is now a third party facebook application called ‘TouchGraph Photos’ that will create a visual representation of how people in your network relate to each other on the basis of geography or employer. It is reliant on users self inputted data, but I think it’s a start in the right direction. Facebook is also capable of importing your google contacts.
That’s great. I didn’t know that existed but it might be sufficient motivation to use Facebook properly and get all my contacts uploaded.
The real value lies in knowing the map of contacts that or more than one step removed though don’t you think?