We social media types seem to spend an awful lot of time agonizing over ways to grow our network and (dare I say it) the amount of influence we wield.
This scenario is played out daily on Twitter and, in many ways, Twitter is a micro-representation of the larger social mediasphere. For my own part, I was jarred to find that I dropped nearly 100 Twitter followers overnight and generally suffer an inferiority complex over the fact that @amandagravel has about 1,000 more followers than I do (social media rule #37: the pretty girls will always win.)
Anyway... it turns out that we social media nerds may have it all wrong. According to new research conducted by HP Labs and Cornell University, size doesn't really matter. Instead, we should be gauging the influence (or Twinfluence at least -- the research specifically studied Twitter patterns) of a social media user less by the number of people in their network than by how well (and how often) they interact directly with other people. Cornell and HP draw the distinction between any Twitterer's larger network of so-called 'friends' and 'followers' (aka total strangers) and the smaller, 'hidden network' of real friends that the Twitterer actually interacts with. You might argue whether interacting with one another on Twitter (or in any other social network) constitutes a solid enough basis for proper friendship, but the bottom line is clear and the case is compelling. It's not the size of the ship but the motion of the ocean.
This kind of thinking offers an obvious takeaway for social media marketers, who historically seem to focus a bit too much on courting the so-called A List -- the bigger-than-big bloggers and top of the chart Twitterati who seem to present (but only sometimes deliver) the possibility of scale. Suddenly, your social media plan is less hard science (give me the verifiable top 10) and more social science (help me understand who talks to who, how and why.)
Of course, size and depth of connection are not mutually exclusive -- guys like Chris Brogan find ways to deliver both. And of course, the finding that influence is really a matter of individual level person-to-person relationships isn't (or shouldn't be) a shocker. But research that validates what you might have summized all along is never a bad thing.
Incidentally, all of this echos my own thinking about the nature of online communities. In fact, I pretty much said so in one of my 2009 predictions for Peter Kim's crowdsourced eBook. Here's what I predicted:
Social graph shrinkage. Sure, the total population of social media users will continue to grow but with the rise of mososo and a resurgence of in person networking, many consumers will scale back on both the number of accounts they maintain AND their number of so-called “friends” and “followers.” We’ll start using online social platforms to stay connected with the people we actually know and care about. Suddenly, being Facebook friends with your mom will seem less ridiculous than following 4,000 strangers on Twitter.
You may now worship me as a Social Media Nostradamus. Just kidding of course (no I'm not) but I would love to hear your perspectives on this topic. Chime in, if you're not already checked out for the holidays.