Social networks need to be even more social

Chile sends rocks to UKThe President of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, arrived in London yesterday with a bag of rocks as a present for the Queen. Of course, those rocks were from the depths of the mine in San Jose where 33 men had been trapped for 70 days. The rocks are a symbol of the unity of the men, who will probably be lifelong friends now. After all, they must have become very close having spent 1,680 hours in constant contact with each other. Of course, they knew each other beforehand; they had a shared interest of mining, of the work they did and of the mining community in which they lived. But the chances are they were not as close before their ordeal as they are now.

And therein lies a secret for anyone using social networks, which is borne out by new brain research from Harvard University. We tend to get on better with people who we have close relationships with than with people for whom there is just a shared interest. For instance – stand back for brave admission – I love the TV programme Coronation Street. I admit it; I’m a fan of this Northern Soap Opera. If I meet someone who also likes “Corrie” I have no doubt we would find something to talk about. But I know people well who hate Coronation Street, indeed I know people who hate TV…! But those people I would probably have more to talk about than with the fans of The Street. Why? Because we have a deeper relationship, where a shared interest in a TV show isn’t that necessary to help us get on.

The Harvard Research found that our brains become more active when we are with people we have close relationships with than when we are with people who we merely have common interests with. So, think about social networks online. How do they work? Well, mostly they emphasise shared interests. In other words, the online social world is largely not as effective in connecting people as we might think.

It’s another nail in the coffin of the “quantity is important” argument for social networks. It has been thought that the ability of online social networks to connect you to more and more people would be an advantage. But several research papers now show that this is not the benefit once thought. A recent study confirmed that large, shallow social networks are much less effective in leading to changed behaviour patterns than small, deep networks. This new research from Harvard adds to that by showing that our brain activity is much greater when we are stimulated by closeness than when we are facing connections of similarity. Now, we have neurological data which show that our brains are more active when we are using deep relationships – and we also have the earlier behavioural research which shows that what we do is dependent upon the closeness and depth of our relationships.

Joining groups on LinkedIn because you share a common interest could be as futile as doing the same on Facebook, Ecademy, Ning or any other social network you care to mention. Superficially it seems as though you are connecting because of the shared interest. But as this new study shows, your brain doesn’t do very much – not as much as when you are connected to people you really know.

Interestingly, several studies of Facebook have shown that most of the activity is with real friends who people know well and who are geographically close. Similarly, studies of online games social networks shows that most players already know each other and only live a few miles apart anyway. As I said a couple of years ago, the Internet is not global, it is local. Now, this new research implies that it isn’t really social – unless you are already social.

Having loads of friends with shared interests is not doing you the good you think it is. Having close relationships – perhaps enhanced using online tools and systems – is the way your brain works. With close, deep relationships, your brain goes into action and your behaviour can change too. With loads of shallow relationships, your brain doesn’t become as active, suggesting that the online social world is more of an illusion than a reality. Just like those Chilean miners, you need to foster close relationships if you are to succeed at something. Loose ties due to common interests would not have been enough to prepare them for a successful rescue.

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