Umair Haque, the Harvard academic, wrote a post called The Social Media Bubble
that advanced the following hypothesis: "Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn't connecting us as much as we think it is. It's largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships."
This hypothesis is not very original, but it did generate a lot of chatter (including a government-oriented post by Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio called Government 2.0 and the Social Media Bubble
), thus making it worth commenting on.
Thin Relationships Are Not Unique to Social Media
The notion that weak, artificial connections are somehow unique to social media is incorrect. Everyone has them – on social networks, on email distribution lists, people in your IM list, and in real life – your grocery checkout person that you kind of know, the mail delivery person you say hi to once a month, the person who works on the 7th floor that you occasionally see at Starbucks.
Thus, this "point" has nothing to do with social media. And it's not even clear that it's a problem. Does it really concern you that you have a "thin relationship" with your mailman, or the flight attendant on your regular NYC to LA redeye flight? Hell, thin relationships can even be a good thing – I don't want to know more about my mailman! I don't see how having a bunch of thin relationships on Facebook, Twitter, or other networks is a bad thing; it's all about how you organize that information and human capital and what you do with it.
All Relationships Exist in the Real World on Some Level, Not "in" Social Media Worlds
Haque's post on The Social Media Bubble
discusses "relationships formed on the Internet" and the level of trust they build, the number of things they replace, and the amount of value they generate. He seems to think, not much. But wait. The post seems to assume that these relationships generated online via social media are online-only relationships which never translate to real-world interactions. That's where I think the whole post becomes fairly irrelevant.
True, some relationships are online-only. And those tend to be less meaningful. (Duh.) And there are situations, as Andrea DiMaio hints at in Government 2.0 and the Social Media Bubble
, where (for example) open government enthusiasts might crowdsource an issue with the government yet never meet in person. And maybe that's hard to do; maybe it's hard to add value through online-only relationships, these thin relationships.
But that's the whole point. Relationships generated through use of social media are not supposed
to be online-only relationships. Unless I'm wrong and the singularity is nearer than we think, the users of social media are humans who exist in the land of the real. We breathe, we eat, we sleep. All our relationships should be real-life relationships.
Hybrid Social Media + Real-Life Relationships Generate Trust and Value
In my experience, relationships can be generated through social media, but strengthened through real-life encounters – a hybrid approach. That looks different to different people in different situations – Maybe it's a one-on-one coffee. Maybe it's a giant conference. Maybe it's a tweetup. Whatever the case, when a thin relationship generated through social media has the potential to be something greater than that, people tend to try to meet up offline.
I have met countless people through social media that I have then met in real life. And yes, I have many thin relationships. Some of those may never grow for a variety of reasons (again, point one, so what?). But some of them definitely have the potential to grow. I had a mountain of emails and DM's from people I only know from social media who wanted to know if I was at the recent South-by-Southwest event in Austin. I have standing invites to many cities. (There is only so much time, money, and energy.)
Three Classes of "Social Media Relationships"
So, I would argue that while there is such a thing as a "social media relationship," those relationships have three main classes: (1) thin relationships, (2) thin relationships with potential, (3) relationships reinforced by real-life interactions (however infrequent). This third class is where most of the value is generated – One can generate "leads" through social media, take some relationships to the next level, create meaningful real life interaction in some form, and then strengthen the real-life relationship through interim social media use
. This positive feedback loop is critical; IRL reinforces social media, and vice versa.
[This is also why there is truly no such thing as a "social media campaign" - the campaign does not exist in social media fantasyland, but rather social media is used to facilitate people's behavior in real life. But that's a tangent. Geoff Livingston has an amausing take on this issue in his post about being a social media carpetbagger
Assume Real Life First, Not Social Media First, When Thinking About Relationships
I'll go one step further. I think that Haque is looking at the entire problem backwards because he (and countless others) start from the point of Assume: Social Media and work from there. (Of course, this means that Anticipate: Social Media Bubble Burst also applies.) But if one starts from the premise of Assume: IRL Relationships and thinks of how social media fits into the human relationships we have been generating since the dawn of man, one sees the issue differently.
In my view, the biggest human relationship problem of the near future – with relevance for government, marketing, and a variety of other industries and topics – is not that too many relationships are being generated through social media with questionable value. The really interesting problem is that (starting from a premise that relationships occur in real life) relationships you form with people in real life have a greater chance of failure if those people are not adept at social media.
Think about it this way. You form a relationship with two people at a happy hour about a topic you're passionate about. During the next week, Person A connects with you on Facebook and LinkedIn, sends you an email from Hotmail, Gmail, or another personal account, and you follow each other on Twitter. Person B only uses their work email account, and doesn't have a social media presence. Clearly, the relationship with Person A will be strengthened by positive social media reinforcement as described above. Person B is at risk of being in a thin relationship with you.
Future Challenges for Relationships – Online and Off
There are two challenges here. One involves a "digital divide for relationships" – How does one build equally strong relationships with people who don't use social media to strengthen them? Or, how do we not let them fall behind?
Two, how can governments, businesses, and other organizations leverage the fact that many people are increasingly like Person A, willing to be activated in real life and willing to strengthen that activation through social media?
I'm not sure anyone has a serious handle on either issue yet.
Posted via email from Mark’s Cheeky Posterous