Thursday 22 September 2016

What are the building blocks of social networks? Where do they come from and how are they structured?


At its origins in 2004, Facebook was just a simple social network for students. 12 years on, more than a billion users connect every day. 

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Snapchat, and friends have made the web conversational. First we found a great way to stay in touch. Then our usage profoundly evolved, often unconsciously. We stay informed or carry out professional monitoring. We look for our soul mate or career opportunities. Internet users have moved on from being spectators to being actors. Organisations and brands have adopted plurilateral postures. Anybody can emerge from anonymity and bring real added value to the community. In fact, anonymity is not the right term. Our digital identity is largely outsourced to these platforms. We entrust them with countless personal and professional details.

The concept of "network" has never been so charged with meaning, but what have these virtual social networks really spawned?

#Socialnetwork?

No need for a wi-fi connexion or a smart phone to connect to a social network. You're waiting for your little one after school, you're early, and so are other parents. A discussion begins, tentatively to start with: Lola's birthday party or the return of head lice. All the characteristics of a social network are in place:

This social network will grow and develop over the years through various encounters. Parent reunion s, the school party or the arrival of a new face present as many occasions. Social networks change, they can even die out. Your little one has become a prepubescent teenager, and you, a 'taxi' driver. Careful not to drop  them off in front of the school, on pain of causing 'shame'. The link between parents is broken. If you maintain close ties with some of them, they become a
part of another social network: that of your friends.
"Every one of us can become an influencer by deciding to makethemselves useful to their community, often by extroversion, but also by generosity."

#6degreesofseparation

Our social connections allow us to make contact with just about anyone throughout the world. This connection is made in an average of 6 steps. The theory of 6 degrees of separation was conceived by eminent scientists such as the American psychosociologist Stanley Milgram. His notoriety is due to the American playwright John Guare and games such as "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon", the American actor (Footloose, JFK, Appolo 13, Sleepers, etc.).

He conducted a series of psychology experiments - one of them being the small-world experiment. It was designed to measure the path lengths between any two people in the United States. He had 300 postcards sent over from Nebraska and Kansas to Boston. The rule was that the cards should only be forwarded hand in hand. 64 of the letters eventually did reach the target contact in Boston and the average path length was around 5,5 or 6.

At the very least, we all know that 6 is not a constant figure and Internet has changed the terms.

#Smallworld

The world is shrinking before our eyes. In February 2016, Facebook counts 1.6 billion active users per month. And two users are separated by an average of... 3.6 degrees of separation. Breton, Corsican, Scottish, Inuit or Maori, it doesn't make any difference.

Of course, the notion of a Facebook friend is rather artificial. No possible comparison with the ties of affection, complicity or shared moments that define our 'real friends'.

But each Facebook friend, each LinkedIn contact is one more gateway to a corner of humanity. We talk about 'weak ties', our activities on virtual social networks have multiplied these weak ties, and we still have a lot to discover about the impact of this increase on our behaviour.

#Influence

On our behaviour... but not only. Whether it's about feelings, emotions, health, consumerism, political opinion... We are the sum of our social interactions. We adapt, more or less consciously, to our social environment. This is the phenomenon that defines influence. Research in numerous domains highlights our capacity to influence each other from 1, 2 and even 3 degrees of separation. And of course, the stronger, the closer the tie, the more powerful the influence.

But influence also works via weak ties and among individuals who don't know each other directly. So, if we can influence each other from up to 3 degrees of separation, and if the social proximity between two individuals also tends to 3, then it gives us food for thought. We still have so much to learn about who we are today, and we'll be different tomorrow.

#Influencers

Social media has built a new model for the dissemination of information. Diffusion is no longer unilateral, it's hastened and amplified by those who retrieve and relay it to their own audience. These 'go-betweens' are the influencers. The famous "buzz" is not a 'word-of-mouth' type transmission, it's more like a firework display!

So these influencers play a key role in the virality of information, or more generally, of a signal. This role obviously attracts natural opinion leaders: journalists, politicians, stars... but this evolution has also drawn out new influencers.

Every one of us can become an influencer by deciding to make themselves useful to their community, often by extroversion, but also by generosity. And the topics can vary from marketing precepts to cupcake tutorials! With videos filmed in a 12m² flat, a young "youtuber" can influence as many people as David Beckham back in the days.

#Privacy

These new habits bring into question the very notion of private life. Whether we like it or not, the boundary between private and professional life is fading. With our use of web platforms, we provide the social networks with plethora of content and details, and this is the information on which their economic models are based.

Therefore, keeping control of our e-reputation is an important issue for each of us. Passivity or defiance are probably not the most productive types of behaviour. It seems more judicious to conscientiously select  your subject matter, and keep your head at all times. To quote the ex first lady, Valérie Trierweiler, following a notorious tweet, turn your thumb 7 times before tweeting!

#Takeaways

By interacting with our social network, we contribute to its development and play a more central role. This is true in the real world as it is on virtual platforms.

In a solely professional context, we add to our address book, assert our skills and knowledge base, maintain contact with key players, perform a thematic watch... In doing so we gain a better understanding of broader trends such as the digital transformation of organisations, the development of the digital economy, the emergence of new practices such as "crowdfunding" or "crowdlending". Our vision changes, opportunities open up.

It's the same principle for organisations. For example, a company's employees represent a potential for notoriety and reputation as yet untapped, a vast network of ambassadors. Their social expression is more relevant and convincing than any other form of communication. "Employee advocacy" is a remarkable reservoir of efficiency, but it shatters the traditional boundaries between internal and external communication, and not incidentally, implies the end of traditional methods of communication management.

Our discovery of the potential of social networks has only just begun.

Social network landscape
Social network landscape

Olivier Raviart
General Manager of Merkutio
General Manager of Merkutio Olivier Raviart embraced the digital age almost 20 years ago. His consulting and training activities are entirely focused on digital communication strategies.
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