Researchers in Amsterdam have discovered something interesting about teenagers online, which almost certainly applies to grown ups as well. The study shows that unlike media speculation that children are busy online contacting strangers, most of them actually only use the Internet to keep in touch with people they already know.

This is the “rich get richer” hypothesis that some psychologists have been debating for the past decade or so. It’s notion is that people use the Internet to increase the richness of existing connections, rather than make new ones. Even though it’s clear that adults and teenagers alike do make new friends online, this research shows that the vast majority of the time is spent on extending and deepening existing relationships.

Coincidentally today I was talking with Jeremy Jacobs the Corporate Presenter about online networking and we came to the conclusion that trying to extend your network of “friends” could be counter productive. Chasing “numbers” instead of “depth” of relationships might not be valuable.

Looking at my own LinkedIn profile I realise that almost all of my connections were people I already knew before I joined the network. Similarly, over at Ecademy my contacts there are either people I already knew, or people I have met in person. And at Facebook, my friends are mostly people who I already knew having worked with them or who I have met elsewhere. There are very few people who I have connected with solely online.

The Amsterdam study shows it is much the same for teenagers. What they are doing is using social networking tools and online communication to deepen existing relationships, making those bonds stronger. Us adults can learn a thing or two from these youngsters. Instead of chasing “numbers” we ought to be using the various networking tools online to extend and deepen our existing relationships. That way your online success is likely to be greater than someone who has tens of thousands of so-called “friends”.

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