Social networks fail to help people

Tony Blair - A JourneyTony Blair is facing a concerted effort to diminish his book, A Journey. A campaign has been set up on Facebook to get A Journey moved from the biography section of bookshops to the crime department…! However, new research suggests this effort is doomed to failure. Social scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that unstructured social networks fail to change behaviour. In a unique experiment they formed two online social networks – a structured one, with close ties and regular updates from the network itself, and an informal, unstructured, ad-hoc network. Traditional social theory – established for many decades – would have us believe that the unstructured network would lead to the most rapid spread of ideas. However, the MIT study found the opposite.

Flying in the face of the theory, this experiment finds the hypothetical notion of the benefit of an informal network to be wanting. Far from helping you spread your ideas and getting them accepted, this research confirms that a structured network of close ties is the most beneficial. It is evidence that quality of your network is more important than quantity. Many networking “gurus” will tell you that you need to build massive networks so that amongst the noise the quality can surface. After all, they say, if you don’t have many people in your network, how can you be sure you have quality connections?

That’s a nice theory – except that the evidence now suggests it is wrong.

Your ideas are much more likely to gain traction online if you have a quality, structured network. The informality of Facebook or Twitter does not achieve as much as you might think. Perhaps that’s why many people give up using these systems for their business as “nothing happens”. Merely chasing numbers of followers or trying to have more fans, likes, or friends than anyone else only does your ego good; it doesn’t help you get your message across it seems.

This new study is the first practical test of the spread of ideas across social networks using different approaches. As such it helps us focus on what we need to do online if we wish to get our ideas accepted and moved around. There are several steps you can take, which this new study suggests are essential to the transfer of information in a network.

1. Concentrate on truly connecting with people, rather than building numbers. Focus on relationships, rather than popularity rankings.

2. Keep in regular touch with your network; don’t just add occasional information – make your social network a key part of your daily activity.

3. Encourage your network participants to invite their real-life friends to join your specific group; getting people to support each other within your network appears to boost the entire network, the study finds.

4. Have structure to your network – rather than making it informal, provide leadership.

In other words, your online networking efforts are likely to bring results when you treat it seriously and when you focus on relationships, leadership and interconnectivity. Simply setting up some kind of informal gathering online will not work for your business it seems. It means, for instance, having a specialist group on Facebook, rather than a collection of all your friends. It means running a group on LinkedIn or Ecademy, or setting up your own social grouping on something like SocialGo or WildApricot. Ultimately, it means treating online networking just like your real-life physical world networks where you share information between close-knit groups of friends and colleagues.

And that’s why the Tony Blair campaign is doomed to failure – the campaigners against him are just not well-known enough to each other for there to be any real lasting impact.  Didn’t they call him Teflon Tony once…?

5 thoughts on “Social networks fail to help people”

  1. Thanks for this blog Graham. The study offers some excellent advice. Quantity-driven network are no substitute for the development of strong relationships in a tight, diverse group.

    This issue was also discussed in last week's Financial Times ( and I've noticed an increased acceptance generally that good networking is not a numbers game but relationship-based.

    Having said that, I thought the Facebook campaign was an innovative and creative way to get publicity. Much better than throwing eggs and shoes at a book signing!

  2. Well, what about last years Christmas number one? Rage against the machine? Originating from South Woodham Ferrers in Essex, and took on the might of Simon Cowell and won.

    I would suggest that the campaign has to resonate with someone significantly to act, and a network would happily tweet and share something that they feel strongly about.

    I have done my bit and moved TB into both the crime and the fiction section…

  3. That was a bad news for social networks, for sure they get negative feedback on some companies and marketers but I think they can repair it so it is better to give a chance for social networks.

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