Designing your social network

My social network would be considered poor by traditional standards, where more connections are better. Yet my network is powerful because I know connectors. I only know a few people in nextNY, but I know Charlie O’Donnell who knows everybody else. I’ve met a few people through likemind, but I’m friends with Noah Brier, one of the people who started it.

My network is structured differently than the connectors, who have direct links to hundreds of people. But I’m only one link away from the people in their networks. Last year, I called this quality being a social butterfly, but after finding the social network analysis page mentioned in that post, I like the term “boundary spanner”.

Thinking about my network got me thinking about the networks that each of the different networkers would have. The rolodex networker will have a broad but shallow network with very weak links. The connector will also have a network with many direct links but because of their personality, those links will be stronger. I have fewer direct links, but those links are entrances into other networks (I should note that I was not motivated by expanding my network, but by meeting new and interesting people, who tend to know other interesting people).

One of the limitations on the structure of personal networks is that social networks require maintenance or they fade away. We get together with our friends, we attend networking events, we drop people emails or postcards to let them know we’re thinking of them, etc. And that network maintenance takes time and effort.

How people choose to spend their “social maintenance budget” determines what kind of network they will have. Some will spend a few minutes with many people, shaking hands at happy hours and the like, creating a large network with weak links. Others will spend more time with fewer people, creating a smaller network with stronger links. Then there are the more typical mixed networks: strong ties with family and a few friends, weaker ties with coworkers, weak ties with folks at the gym or the bar, etc.

You can increase the size of your “social maintenance budget”, but that requires sacrificing something else in life. You only have so many hours in the day and so much energy. The agenda networkers who are seeking funding might be out every night looking for investors, but at the cost of time with friends and family.

Alas, networking is not an even playing field. Some people are naturally charismatic and memorable e.g. the connectors. They can get far more out of their “social maintenance budget” because they require less time with people to maintain a strong connection. Those of who us with wallflower personalities have to work harder to maintain a similar number of connections, so we have fewer connections. Different people, different types of networks.

So think about where you’re spending your time and social energy:

  • Relaxing with friends and family?
  • Pursuing business opportunities?
  • At work with coworkers?

If you don’t have the network that you’d like, assess your personality type and choose the type of networking most appropriate. Because I’m not an extroverted connector, I have to concentrate on fewer connections so I need to make those connections count. If I’m going to spend my “social maintenance budget” on expanding my network, I need to find those connectors to get the greatest return.

P.S. Boy, that last sentence sounds really Machiavellian. In reality, I’m more likely to meet connectors because two introverts rarely start conversations with each other. And once I’m in a conversation, I can build connections with the people that reach out. But my larger point remains – in a world of limited time and energy, I have to make choices, so these posts are my way of thinking through the implications of those choices.

4 thoughts on “Designing your social network

  1. People who are naturally charismatic have an advantage, but that advantage arises mainly in situations where they’re talking to others in person. People who are more introverted can use other strategies to expand their network with more direct contacts.
    1) Get involved and be the one to organize things. Help set up the group or meeting. People will then have a reason to talk to you and remember you.
    2) Use whatever work-related or technical skill you have to meet people. If you’re introverted, it’s easier to connect with people when you’re both working on something, than when you’re just chatting at an event. Starting side projects, or doing work for a group (such as being the group webmaster).
    3) Make as much use of the written word as possible. Introverted people tend to be better at written communications, and can use blogs and social networking sites more effectively than people who thrive on face-to-face or phone communications. Some people I know who are highly skilled conversationalists can barely put together a coherent email. Written communication is also a good way to maintain your network as well.

    Anyway, these are some things I’ve noticed work for me.

  2. Eric,
    I absolutely loved it – very insightful post. You’ve made me think of “social network” as a tree. What you harvest will depend on the soil you own, the fruits you wish to reap, the seed you chose to plant, and the amount of time you devote to watering and fertilizing it.

    You have actually inspired me to ramble about this topic on my own blog – under the title: Social Networking: If you plant rice, you harvest rice.


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