Connected?

I was intrigued by Nicholas Christakis’ recent TED talk on social networks.  After explaining how people’s social networks influence behavior such as smoking and showing some striking statistics on it, he goes into a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of social networks. He suggests that, overall, social networks must be good for us (“social networks are fundamentally related to goodness”) because otherwise they would not be so pervasive, and concludes that “what the world needs now is more connections”.

I disagree (though with the current obsession on rather shallow online social networks, the conclusion is not surprising). More connections can be a good thing, but not necessarily. Would you rather have 10 good, supporting friends, or 1000 “facebook friends” that you never talk to?  The quality of the social network and the kind of links seem to me to be even more important than how large the network is, or the level connectivity.

Some online social networks seem to provide mostly virtual connections (Facebook), whereas others (such as CouchSurfing) seem to be more effective at bridging the gap between the virtual world and the real one.  What causes the difference? I think there’s two main factors:

  • The kind of people in the network, and their expectations of the network.  The network will be more valuable with more participants and less spectators
  • The kind of tools: if there are tools that help build trust, or tools for collaboration, then the network will be far more valuable

There’s a point at which having more contacts is meaningless. Online social networks extend the number of people we have instant access to, but unless there is some way to harness the power of the unnatural number of connections, what good does it really do us?

I do think the world needs more real connections, and that the available technology has a huge potential for making these connections do something useful. Here is one example: Kiva Microfunds connects people to those in need of micro-lending.  Here is another: No Shortage of Work helps connect people in projects that are mutually beneficial (the idea being that it is better for an unemployed person to work for free and gain experience than to do nothing).

What is often missing is the right space or right tools for the right people to interact.  I think social networks, if well designed, could provide the space and the tools. A social network, rather than being something you just belong to, could be something you can act in, and that can act for you.

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