As implied by the “part I” in The Complete Bounds of Our Social Networks – Part I, there is a part II, and this is it… Having looked at the research around Dunbar’s number, it strikes me that social media and the modern workplace face a number of challenges, but first, let’s rewind a few thousand years…
The village is a social concept that most of us are familiar with, at least theoretically. An early village was social network, with bounds. Without modern communications and affordable transport, villages were isolated communities, with the occasional messengers travelling between them carrying news. The social network in a village was tightly meshed. Not only did you know someone, you knew everyone that they knew – mutual friends and friends of friends. People had a strong shared context too (culture, history and other knowledge).
Cheap transportation, followed by electronic communication, has enabled ‘villages’ to grow into global communities. In communication terms, I am as close to someone on the other side of the planet, as someone on the other side of the office – sometimes closer. For me this has been one of the joys of using enterprise Wikis and digital media in the business context. Productivity is increased, there is a reduced need to travel, and greater access to a global talent pool.
However, we have lost that shared context and deep meshing of the village. The village model enforced symmetry in people’s networks – knowing people outside of the village boundary took great effort. That isn’t the case anymore. In recent years we have come to live with more fragmented networks, as people commute long distances to work, and travel more. For a while, mass media created a shared context for us: We read the same news and watched the same television programs. But today, with hundreds of channels and more and more micro-publishers (e.g. podcasts) even the media is now fragmented.
We can end up becoming more and more ‘niched’ into our areas of interest and expertise, but less and less deeply connected. What little shared context we have is dwindling. Perhaps that is why celebrities are so lauded these days – they are one of the few remaining things that we universally share.
Facebook, twitter et. al have held a mirror up to us. Now we can see our social networks for what they are – fascinatingly complex, frighteningly large and increasingly fragmented. We are pushing the bounds of our social attachments, not so much in the number of people we know, but rather in the depth of context that we share across the network.
We need shared context and history for efficient communication, to preserve relationships – especially in the work place. The right use of social media can create this. Sharing news stories and updates, as well as a good old face to face meet up, even just to have fun, are investments. They strengthen our social network s and improve communication in the long run.