OPINION: When it comes to social media, bigger isn’t always better


It is when we use our online networks as pipes, not prisms, that the small counts and seems to be of value.

This article, written by Claudia Smith, University of Victoria, originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished here with permission:

Bigger is always better. Many of us believe this to be true when it comes to building our online networks of friends, connections, and social media followers. But new research suggests the opposite may be closer to the truth: Maintaining small networks of trusted connections may be smarter in the long run. While this may seem counterintuitive, it also comes with a caveat.

We often feel pressured, and even encouraged by social media platforms, to grow our networks. Heed all prompts for “someone else you may know” and “who to follow”. We all want the sociometry (that number of friends or followers posted in the corner of your profile) to look good.

Offline and online social networks

Both offline and online, our social networks can function either as prisms or pipes.

As prisms, they broadcast our likes, dislikes, opinions, interests, activities and more to others. They signal who we are, or want to be, to our network of social connections.

As pipes, they act as conduits through which aid and resources can flow. Using our networks as pipes is an important part of how we build relationships. We give and receive advice, advocacy, support, emotional support, and tangible things (like entrepreneurs do, for example).

Studies of face-to-face networks have generally shown that whether we use our networks as prisms or pipes, the bigger the better.

But what about online?

We flock to social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram because it’s easy to view, share, and store our connections, allowing us to connect with them whenever we want. This is what makes connecting online and offline so different. We cannot search and find a comment we made six days ago to a friend over coffee. We can, however, find and share a conversation we had with our Facebook “friends” three years ago. It turns out that this is a very important distinction.

It’s when we use our online networks as pipes, not prisms, that small matters and seems to be of value. In a recent study of Canadian entrepreneurs, our team of researchers discovered this counterintuitive point and shed light on the reasons.

We think this suggests broader ideas.

Use of our online networks

In order for people to actually use their online networks as channels for resources and support, three things need to come together. First, we have to believe that we have the capacity to ask for or provide a resource or support (called exchange). Second, we must have a way to actually do the trade. And finally, you have to want to make the exchange.

All of these digital viewing, scanning, sharing, searching and storing capabilities of our social media networks make it very easy for us to believe that we have the capacity and disposition to use our networks like pipes. I can quickly and easily ask my online network for anything I need and get a quick response. But our research suggests that we don’t always have the will to ask.

Through interviews with entrepreneurs, we found that the reason is probably because people really care what other people are going to think. This perceived risk of social judgment can prevent entrepreneurs from obtaining useful resources from their online networks. We believe it’s not just entrepreneurs who care. This is because the risk of perceived social judgment is a product of the audience collapse, which reduces our willingness to reach out online.

Audience collapse occurs when we add people to our online networks in all aspects of our lives. These can be people we know well and people we barely know; personal relationships, professional knowledge, volunteer relationships, hometown relationships and those who share interests and hobbies.

As we build these diverse and oversized networks, and invite so many different people to join us, our willingness to ask for help diminishes. With all this research, visualization and sharing, who knows where our request might end up?

Our research reveals that many of us probably perceive a great deal of social judgment risk in asking for anything other than information from our online networks. We fear that others will see our requests as weak, needy, uncertain, confusing, too personal or inappropriate, which makes us less willing to ask for help. This involvement of the dark side of bigger is better Social networks are rarely discussed.

If this resonates, what can you do?

To make our social media networks useful as tips, we suggest you create trust networks. These are specially designed to stay small – yes, small. Add only people who will support, without judging negatively, any request for help you may make – these are the people you trust.

A network of trust is likely to be very high in reciprocity, or giving and getting help, because all members believe it is a safe place to ask and give help. It becomes a really useful network of pipes where small, not large, is valuable.

So if you want to use your online networks as a prism to point things out to the world, stick with it. But if you want to give and get help, then create a small network of trust on social media. We think you’ll be glad you did.

Claudia Smith, Assistant Professor, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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