The Right Rize for Social Media Networks

I was reading an old Clay Shirky blog post, A Group Is Its Own Enemy.

It talks about some of the interesting characteristics of groups (in particular online communities), such as how essentially groups need some kind of government, otherwise they’ll spend all of their time talking about “enemies” or sex or how awesome their values/heroes/etc. are, and virtually no time actually pursuing whatever the group was created for. The article was written in 2003 in reference to online communities, but the points are timeless and extend beyond online groups.

It also got me thinking about online social networks and different ideas to build better-quality conversations intrinsically into a network.

For example, you can go with two numbers that seem to come up a lot: 2, 8 and 150.

Two is an obvious number: the best, most intimate conversations happen one-on-one. When you want to get to know someone, you have an intimate dinner, just the two of you. And most online social media reflects this, from Facebook “friends” to text messaging and the way people use email most of the time. The Extreme Programming methology advocated the use of paired programming to take advantage of the power of “dyads.” Two is the ideal number for getting things done.

Eight is the number that In Search of Excellence quotes as being the ideal size of an ad hoc, task force or skunkworks style group–or essentially any productive group.  Five to ten people is a good range–beyond that, you start having to manage people so much that the quality of work and communication drastically decreases. An eight-person group is big enough to combine different skill sets and ideas without getting bogged down. (Interestingly, I’ve noticed that most swing and salsa dance troupes are composed of 5-8 couples, combining both the number 2 and the number 8). Eight is the ideal number for a group project.

Finally, the tribal number: 150. This number has been quoted in numerous places. The Tipping Point refers to it as the “Magic Number” and quotes religious groups, business leaders and evolutionary biologists all coming to the same conclusion: our brains aren’t designed to understand the interactions of groups larger than 150 people. And 150 is bigger than you might think, because it’s not just about remember 150 names and faces (we can handle much more than that). The hard part is keeping track of the relationships between all of those people, from the fact that Johnny likes Lisa but won’t acknowledge it because she’s a Republican, to the differences in how two sub-groups of friends feel about Myspace vs. Facebook.

We see the stress-tests of many social networks right now. Facebook users often have hundreds of “friends” that they barely know, which means being inundated with party invitations from halfway around the world and annoying “which of your friends is the hottest pirate?” applications. Many Twitter users “follow” vastly more people than they can actually read, which means that the conversational nature of Twitter disappears (something that Twitter clients all try to fix).

The problem? When our social networks spiral into uncontrollable hugeness, the whole two-way interactivity of social media is stifled, and in time the network itself will die if the technology doesn’t adapt to fix it. Facebook has been trying to tweak its interface to reflect this need for users to see exactly enough information to keep them interacting with their friends, but not so much that the site is useless.

One of the keys to social groups is that they need structure. Ad hoc groups aren’t really unstructured, they’re just free to evolve a new structure that fits their needs. All groups either evolve structure or die, and the best social media networks are the ones that evolved the best structures for interactions.

Why not take the three magic numbers and put them to good use?

Two (1:1) – Actually Facebook does a great job of this. You have 1:1 friendships, Facebook messages (which don’t have to be 1:1 but usually are), and even the Wall-to-Wall feature that helps to isolate two sets of broadcasted messages into one conversation. Brilliant.

Eight – This is the first number that is under-exploited. What about a social network where certain types of groups were limited to just 8 people? It seems like an annoying restriction, but then look at Twitter’s success in limiting posts to 140 chars.

150 – Here’s a radical thought: what if you were limited to a maximum of 150 “friends” in your social network? Or what if certain groups or networks were limited to 150 people?

We love to hate restrictions, but from Haiku to Delta blues, sometimes there’s great beauty in simplicity.

2 comments for “The Right Rize for Social Media Networks

  1. May 26, 2009 at 11:46 am

    I like the idea of restricting the number of friends you could have, and Facebook did this with their limit of 5,000 friends (recently removed as they continue to twitter-spasm) but of course the problem is that unfriending someone has social consequences. imho the biggest problem of many of these networks is that they don’t give one the tools to be outwardly socially graceful (“but of COURSE we’re friends dear!”) while allowing us to use the social network as we’d like (real-friends-only).

  2. May 31, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    That’s very much what I’m talking about. The big thing about online social networks is that they need to better fit the way our actual social networks work, including the idea that we have concentric circles of friends as well as separate ones. And the technology also has to serve to create those barriers.

    If you’re only allowed to have 150 friends within a certain category, then maybe it could make it less socially unacceptable to take a friend out of that category.

    But even better than that would be to do something along the lines of what gmail and gtalk do: to identify your real friends organically, based on whether or not you actually talk *back* to them. So maybe that’s the key: to create the concentric groups of “friends” and have them automatically updated based on who you interact with the most. So people you never talk to would be in a limbo stage unless you identified them as “people I like to follow” (meaning the equivalent of subscribing to a newsfeed), and the people you interact with the most would be the only ones to show up in your feed…. UNLESS your closest friends start responding to a less-prioritized message, in which case it would get bumped up as “probably more significant.”

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