[Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, Italy. Photo by Valeria Maltoni.]
[Note: I published this article on LinkedIn on March 5, 2019 with the promise I would post it to my site. Then my friend developer died and I got busy. 2020 was, well, 2020. So here it is in all its 3k+ words glory.]
You don't get connection from status. You get it by enlivening each other other, making people stronger through engagement. Status may give you self-esteem, but alone it does not create change. It's social energy that drives civilization. But we need to figure out how it works and how to use it to benefit from it.
One month ago, I posted an open invitation to talk to 30 people in my LinkedIn network. My intent was to test some ideas about the science of networks. I wanted to learn more about the strength of online ties when isolated from popularity or any particular type of activity associated with status—e.g., viral article, award, promotion, photo opp with famous person, etc.
Popularity and kudos draw a kind of attention that is hard to separate from genuine connection to a person. We want to be associated with winning, and it's more efficient to use proxies like existing wins to gain personal status. Status is not a proxy of change.
To gain status we trade social capital and work. Social networks extract our social capital and work with the promise of status, but do not give us back something more valuable in return.
But before we get into why it's important to understand how all these variables work in platforms like LinkedIn, a little more about what happened in the last 30 days.
How social capital accrues in networks
15 years ago, Duncan Watts wrote that networks evolve under the influence of social forces. His research found that we may do very well in one environment and do poorly in another. Because people change and situations change. In our physical lives, we're constantly called to choose how to respond to things that happen to us. Good things, and bad things. Our network therefore is dynamic.
In real life, we interact with material things, including people. Interactions with people allows us to create social capital.
The connections we make through physical activities—talking, sharing a space, doing work, etc.—create a store of energy. It is this energy accrued with physical action that transforms the connections into a durable network of relationships. This bond is the reason we can reach out to someone we worked with or with whom we had engaging conversations years ago, and rekindle the relationship. In cultures that value social aspects of connection, people literally pick up where they left off.
More broadly, our responses to what happens to us in real life depend on the narrative we have running in our heads about who we are, our heritage, needs, and environment, how we see the world, and how we interact with people and things. Because identity is a very strong component of how we show up.
[the image above is part of an introduction to a program I taught at the Bologna Business School]
But many of us are also increasingly living a second (or third) life online. Here we can choose to have a different identity. In fact, social networks are finely built to bank on it.
How social networks use connections
Social networks like LinkedIn—where I chose to run my small experiment—are built to exploit the principles that underlie human nature. We seek status, and we want to do it as efficiently as possible. Eugene Wei has a very articulate explanation of how social networks do it. He calls it “Status as a Service,” which has a nice ring to it.
As you'll see below, the words we use to tell the story are critical, so I changed them around a little. The general concept holds—social networks mine our work and social connections and capital to exist. They promise status, which is volatile and doesn't lead to change. Positive change is a store of value. Social networks use our value to increase their value.
In the status game, cultural assumptions are in play as well. Social network algorithms are encoded with the cultural assumptions of their country of origin. LinkedIn, for example, is a U.S. creation and it incorporates the values Americans absorb in their environment—e.g., individuality, work hard, play hard = success, the sky's the limit, competition, efficiency, etc. Hence the cultural assumptions are based on the ideas that individuals should control their social and physical environment, anything should and can be improved, we should have as many choices as possible, and so on.
[I'm not picking on LinkedIn. I'm using it to illustrate my experiment because I ran the test there.]
As a result of both forces—cultural assumptions based on values and how social networks are built to exploit human nature—something happens to our online identity.
In the real world, when we make decisions we ask three fundamental questions—Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Our answer is based on context. When we talk about identity and the web, the context changes based on the features the technology offers and how the algorithm is programmed. Online, authentication, representation, communication, personalization, and reputation drive identity.
The sum of components social networks use to drive activity and build a business on top of it are designed to reward certain kinds of behaviors.
They use questions we ask in real life like “what does this mean to me?” and “what should I do?” to their ends. Therefore the avatars and updates we see here and elsewhere don't fully represent what's really happening to us. They don't provide information about the context in someone's life, how they feel, what we need right now. We know even less about the latent opportunity in the hundreds or thousands of links we have, which go way beyond our physical limits.
What I learned in my experiment
30 days after I shared my invitation to reach out on LinkedIn, I learned that the proven aspects of the science of networks work. Social capital accrues in physical networks. It's a store of energy that has remarkable durability.
Based on the research, for social distance to create a strong connection or tie in a network, we need at least two dimensions or two things in common to come together. In my test, I found that the two strongest things in common that created a reason to connect—and stay connected—were:
- Physical engagement—geography was helpful, but not critical
- Work—as in having done something together or witnessing actual work
Both dimensions are very much a product of life in the real world. Network density created with physical engagement is thus much stronger. In person, we exchange a type of energy that is most closely associated with feeling alive.
It should not come as a surprise. This is the social energy that created entire civilizations. Social capital is based on engagement in actual things we do. Work influences how we relate to one another. Together, these two social dimensions make connections durable. Which is why sharing a physical space with someone or something (like nature) creates a richer experience.
Without exception, every single person who reached out from past connections had shared a physical space with me, and witnessed my work. We were colleagues, they came to the events and conversations I organized, we spoke on a panel together, we met frequently to talk about our work and lessons learned, we were part of a community of practice.
People who were not already connected with me also reached out through warm introductions—second degree links, same type of work and problems we solve, people looking for help in the physical world. Phone and video conversations are a good step in the direction of forming a connection. A step toward durable connection includes working on a project together and meeting over coffee or at an event. Context and opportunity drive timing here.
Prominent science of networks researcher Albert-László Barabási says, “replace the corporate ladder with a social bridge.” We should think more about how our physical presence and our work impact others. Some of the great stories I heard in the last 30 days bear witness to the power of reaching out to others and comparing notes. The activities that don't scale—meeting in person, working on a project together—create the most value.
The context in which we operate is more fluid today. Professional associations are no longer enough of a social bridge. Brian Eno popularized the term scenium to indicate a collaborative space for dialogue and mutual influence. That's a much more appropriate vehicle for durable connection, because it translates across jobs, titles, and situations.
As an example of scenium, Ted spoke about booking a space to meet with peers who did the same kind of work to ask questions, learn from each other, and solve common problems. Bruce talked about partnering with peers in the science of complexity to offer workshops and teach people how to problem solve. The positive effects of building a physical context for connection create cumulative influence.
If it's in person and personal meetings that open more doors, why spend more time on LinkedIn than in real connections? Because we're social, and it got us there.
How the status seeking monkey brain gets us
When I explored the difference between power and status, two major dimensions in social hierarchy, I elaborated on the work of Adam Grant. But I got it slightly wrong. Because I didn't pay enough attention to the definitions of power and status. Power is the ability or capacity to perform or act effectively. It's our capacity to do things, to affect change, to use information to make each other stronger that gains us social capital. That is power in a very literal sense.
My small experiment illustrates how social capital is a durable store of energy. Building social capital is worth out time because it generates energy, which converts into power.
Status, however, is not a proxy of change and is not worth more than our time.
What I should have said is that when we believe we have no power, we think status will help us get heard. Some say status is something we earn through respect and competence. Maybe that's true, maybe we should just work on developing our skills, on being useful, and people will find us.
But the hard work should go to building social capital, because that accrues over time, rather than putting too much stock on status, which is volatile.
The status seeking monkey brain developed in response to evolutionary forces. it prompts us to look for the most efficient path to building social capital. Eugene Wei says social networks work because they not only encourage this aspect of our nature—they optimize for it. Hence we end up trading social capital and work, which take time to build and create, for badges and stickers.
Seriously, I've been on LinkedIn for 15 years and the return on any energy I put into it has been mostly self-esteem. LinkedIn has not given me anything more valuable in return for my work and social capital. In fact, its algorithm has optimized many of my articles out of sight even from my personal network. Which is why I still maintain a personal blog to store ideas. The higher density in topics over the last 13 years takes advantage of Google's search algorithm, but also of the durable connections I've made over the years through my work. (You can subscribe by email.)
My time is much more valuable as a creator. Hence why I'm writing an article instead of publishing a status update. I can use this article as a vehicle to test and work on my ideas and intellectual property, while the status update is engineered to boost my ego. I promised to publish here, but I believe in keeping my work all in one place I own and will update the last two posts on Conversation Agent soon (soon-ish).
How social networks work on us
Social networks' promise is to make it more efficient to connect with each other. Who would disagree with wanting scale? But we better watch out who benefits from it and calculate the costs, even as it's much harder to quantify intellectual work. If we look through the actual “Jobs to be Done” lens for social networks based on the seven deadly sins, LinkedIn's fit is greed.
In phase 1, LinkedIn was focused on creating a mechanism people could use to provide proof. We accrued some status with connections–initially tied to real life. The network effects were more proof-derived – e.g., physical engagement, work history, search and discovery. Groups where the mechanism where we could share our “proof.” See LinkedIn—phase 1.
Barabási says that in the absence of proof of performance, networks determine success. In the absence of intrinsic value metrics for work, online proof of likes and volume activity confer status. Vanity metrics vs. actual results. Hence the number of links indicating a bigger network size started becoming a proxy of proof. The logic then goes that since others give status to us, we seek the shortest path to getting it. Groups with moderators and discussions were a good idea early on to have enough content and sustain a level of activity to bring more people into the network.
For a while groups grew steadily, but eventually they plateaued. Because volume is harder to sustain in a smaller network. When LinkedIn grew beyond a certain size, groups were no longer enough. To keep more people on the network, activity needed a broader platform on which to provide more kinds of proof.
Hence the content streaming engine on the home page, which got an upgrade with automatic refreshes in 2012. Introduction of the content stream created more visibility to the status potential people could gain through proof, people tags, and likes. Other features that had less velocity were minimized in the new design. See LinkedIn—phase 2.
Eugene Wei calls a version of this mechanism “Social as a Service.” The content streaming function on LinkedIn favors short, spontaneous updates over links to articles and even posts like this one. Over a certain threshold of activity, the stream becomes noisy. To keep the noise-to-signal ratio within certain limits, social networks introduced the algorithm.
Links take people elsewhere, so they're not as desirable as articles on the platform for the social network. But articles like this one take time to read and thus create less activity, or take more time to create activity. By taking over, the algorithm changes the constraints.
The velvet rope no longer works when everyone is in… so the network needs an artificial construct to maintain some form of caste system. It's the same mechanism airlines use for points programs—to keep people aspiring and paying for a higher place. On LinkedIn, we pay with actual work and social capital to maybe provide proof and get status.
“Status relies on coordinated consensus to define the scarcity that determines its value. Consensus can shift in an instant,” says Wei. Good news for LinkedIn and other social networks, not so good news for us. In the absence of concrete ways to measure influence or obvious evidence, perception of success creates success—vanity metrics win over actual results.
We seek status, social networks seek activity—we keep the flywheel spinning at a personal cost in time, energy, and attention.
Why we should not undervalue social capital
Creating any durable advantage using work in social networks is hard—because this kind of network traffics in proof and status. Hence the games. No matter what we say about games, they can be gamed, and social networks will continue to tweak the algorithms to keep up on the flywheel.
They're not dissimilar from older forms of games in concept. Being published in Harvard Business Review confers a certain status. While it's probably easier to get in now that HBR has a website that needs content to keep readers coming back and subscribing, there are still certain standards we need to meet—published authors and academics seem to fare better.
Lists like Thinkers50 and the top professional lists in any field also have a certain set of requirements. How about the TED and TEDx franchises? We go for awards and recognition by our peers because they increase visibility. In 2018, after issuing the list of winners, the World 50 Best restaurants announced a change. The organization noticed that the same “best” kept trading positions at the top. To make room for new entrants, they retired winners to the Hall of Fame.
Wei says, “Life is nothing if not a nested series of status contests,” and I tend to agree with him. With a caveat, which is the genius of social networks like LinkedIn and why they keep people coming back. It is the apparent promise of meritocracy, that anyone at any point could score big in the status game that keeps us producing work to use for proof. We keep trading social capital for a potential promise of status to stay in the game.
Social currency does affect behavior. From a psychological standpoint, actions like sharing imply altruism and affinity with a group or cause and desire for self-expression. But they also signal need for validation, and need for social status recognition. When our name is called out, we're more likely to engage (unless we don't know about it, or care about this type of signal.)
We should not undervalue social connection. Network may not be something we actively create, but it's something in which we engage actively. Our energy is a source of power. How we choose to share information can either help us make each other stronger, or it can take away from us.
We're alive through physical engagement and work. These are real.
Status and proof are volatile. Others dictate the rules of the game. I would rather use my work to transform the power of an idea into something tangible. Thank you if you're among the 30 plus people who chose to engage in real life. Let's keep that door open and keep creating social capital.
There's no ROI in likes. The ROI is in connection, and we don't get connection through status. We get it through social capital. That's how we feel alive and do our best work.
Implications for business
Corporate environments rely heavily on email, messaging programs to communicate, and (sometimes) Intranet or knowledge portals to share information. There are plenty of meetings, but they often malfunction—that is the consequences don't match the intent. People try to do too many things at once without an organizing principle, or are not clear on what they're trying to do.
We crave connection and purpose at work, but we hardly ever create the space and formats to engage social capital and do the work together. As for the flow of information, results vary wildly—from not having access to relevant information to email chains that provide little to no context and are hard to sort. Somehow, there isn't time to address the questions for which we most need answers.
In fact, many organizations may function like social networks in that status and proof become seemingly more important than social energy and work. It's not thus surprising that engagement is down, and work is not alive.
P.S. There's a reason why I used the image of Ponte Vecchio for this article. It's a great example of a meeting place that has connected parts of a city and the activities of its citizens for centuries. It was even spared in the WWII bombing. Because people recognized it as the beacon of civilization.
But lately it's become a crowded stage for selfies in one of the major European cities that continue to experience rapid growth in tourism numbers. To the point that many are talking about overtourism. I was there December 2018 and experienced it. Overtourism creates an artificial environment where hosts and guests, locals or visitors, feel the quality of life and quality of experience has deteriorated considerably. This means extraction of value without putting value back.
My gratitude to Peter Tunjic for the conversation that helped me clarify my thinking, and for his contribution to Defining Value with a Capital Idea.
Watts, Duncan J., Six Degrees: the Science of the Connected Age, W.W. Norton, New York (2003)
Barabási, Albert-László, The Formula: the Universal Laws of Success, Little, Brown and Company, New York (2018)
Thanks also go to Quartz for distributing Eugene Wei's article on Status as a Service, which gave me an insider's view into the mechanics of social networks. It was very timely and thought provoking.
Find the description of the project in The Network: 30 People in 30 Days