Two instincts kick in when you join any online social network:
1. Add as many people as you can.
2. The more people you're connected with the better you feel.
Why is that?
Where is the value in adding people you hardly know and why do we feel better about the quantity over quality? There's got to be something about our mammalian brain that flicks a switch. I've seen it happen when email first came out, then instant messenger and I'm certainly seeing it now with Twitter and online social networks like Facebook.
This weekend my niece and I (she's thirteen) set-up a Facebook account for me. Now that Facebook is taking over as the "it" social network du jour, I figured I would be under-serving my team and clients if I did not know how it works and what makes it different from other online social networks. I shot out a quick Twitter post reporting that I had set-up the Facebook account with my niece. Within moments, people were not only trying to add me as their "friend", but were also adding my niece and sending her messages. Weird... and uncool.
My first move was to remove my niece (easy enough). Then, as the days passed on I started getting "friend requests." Most of them I didn't understand. Why would most of these people want to connect to me as a friend? Most of them hardly knew me. Most of them never even dropped me an email when they switched jobs or moved to another city.
Back to those two online social network instincts. It's not important if we're really friends as much as if the other person is validated because their own network is strong in numbers. There were some key learnings that really shined: a real online social network needs to be as strong as your in-person social network. We all know that a handful of friends will always be stronger than an alphabetized laundry list of acquaintances, but online, it's still a number's game.
Upon reflection, if I can't keep my niece (who is a friend) as a friend... what does that really say about the power of online social networks?
I'm not being down on online social networks (I'm still loving LinkedIn, Twitter, etc...). I am questioning how the eco-system can stay intact and powerful if the real power behind the online social network is in how many people you have instead of who you have. There will be abuse and there will be stories of greatness (I've had my share of both). I guess like real world social networks, they are only as strong and integrity-based as the people you allow to be a part of it.