Hi. Thanks for having me. Before I get started I should mention, as I do in my own blogs, that I write as an IBMer rather than IBM. My posts don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions. Hopefully, that much is obvious, but perhaps it's worth mentioning in case anyone mistakenly thinks anything that follows is an official company direction.
I recently (and finally) read 'The Tipping Point' by Malcolm Gladwell, which my friend Andy was so insistent I should read that he loaned me his copy. While of course it made me ponder, yet again, the explosive growth of interest in virtual worlds in the past couple of years, the thing that struck me most was the Dunbar constant. Malcolm Gladwell quotes anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar on the subject:
"The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us."
For anyone interested in enabling (or even participating) in online communities and social networking, this idea is obviously an important one.
Perhaps it's unsurprising, but I personally find a large overlap between the people I know in the real world (and in various virtual ones) and my online social networking friends. Interestingly enough, it turns out I currently have 122 friends on Facebook and 188 connections on LinkedIn. I follow 101 people on Twitter and 168 on Flickr. These are small numbers, and largely these connections represent genuine social relationships. In fact, I tend to use many of these tools as lazy ways of keeping my friends in my peripheral vision and occasionally updating them about what I'm up to.
Grant McCracken (who incidentally has a great story about appearing on Oprah) was thinking about social networking and Dunbar recently and asks whether online tools help gregarious people expand their number of friends beyond Dunbar's constant of 150. This makes me wonder how social networking "whales", with thousands of friends, manage. Robert Scoble today has 4249 friends on Facebook, follows 4656 people on Twitter and 1954 on Pownce. Asked whether a 'friend' on a social network is really a friend, Scoble replied that "a 'friend' is someone you want in your network. No more, no less". Robert, I'd love to know whether something like Facebook is purely a distribution mechanism, or whether you think of your network as concentric circles with thousands of followers at the outer edges and a smaller number at the warm fuzzy centre of your online world? And, as a follow up question, what will happen when you hit the Facebook 5,000 friend limit?
What about large corporate networks in social networking sites like Facebook? The IBM network in Facebook consists of over 23,000 people (more people, though a smaller percentage of total employees, than either Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, or Sun). How useful is a network that big though? Isn't it a bit of a whale too? In fact, doesn't the important interconnectedness happen in the overlapping sub-networks between those people and their friends?
When talking about virtual worlds as a form of social media, the themes of user generated content and social networking seem like a suitable backdrop. Indeed, those are usually the themes I use to demonstrate the relevance and importance of virtual worlds to people who are already getting comfortable with social software. Personally, I try to invest time in meeting friends and colleagues in virtual worlds and games, and this has proven to be a useful way for me to develop and maintain friendships with other IBMers around the world, as well as gradually build and broaden my network. To take one example, I've only ever met Jessica Qin 'virtually', in Second Life, but that doesn't mean the relationship is not real. In fact, we've built a great working relationship and got to know each other pretty well over the past 18 months.
An employer who sees the potential of virtual worlds for bringing large numbers of employees together probably needs to consider the smaller sub-networks too. Helping those small groups of people meet and work together is key. Spending time not working together is just as important too. How many times can you think of in your own life that a chance introduction over lunch or at the watercooler / pub (delete as appropriate) led to an interesting new project? Rather than focusing only on the large-scale, we also need to be thinking about those close personal social networks.