I have been an active participant in social media — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — for just a little over a year now. That qualifies me as little more than a rank amateur. Still, my network of friends, followers, and connections has grown rapidly during that time. But while the numbers in the networks and the flow of information has scaled dramatically, I’m fairly certain my attention span hasn’t. Time is a constant, and always a constraint, and I am now to the point where I find myself wondering:
How do I keep all of these connections straight? How do I actually use this network? What is the real value — because I do believe that in today’s world we live and die by our network — in these connections?
It’s fairly obvious that whether you’re looking to build an audience, connect with old friends, or position yourself for a career move, it’s great to have thousands of contacts. But for most people, and especially when it comes to Twitter, we need some way to sort through and categorize all these great contacts and information streams.
Chris Brogan, author of Trust Agents, recently tackled these kinds of questions in his post “Beating Dunbar’s Number.” I first came across Dunbar’s Number several years ago when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, which discusses how ideas spread like viruses and “tip” at the point of critical mass. Dunbar’s Number refers to a theory put forth by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar that the upper limit of the number of people you can maintain stable social relationships with is 150. And that seems to fly in the face of what social networking ala Twitter is all about.
Chris, who’s a social media expert, suggests two interesting points:
First, you don’t need to play the forced-choice, quality vs. quantity game — that if you’re in it for the people factor to connect and build relationships where there’s an exchange of value and the currency is knowledge and information — you can beat the Dunbar number.
Second, to do that, there are a number of creative ways to leverage that limit. One way is to ensure that you’re in someone else's 150 by finding the right groups of 150.
But what is the right group? Is it based on your location? Your niche of interest? Is it by professional function?
And that got me back to thinking about The Tipping Point and the first of Gladwell’s three laws of epidemics: The Law of the Few. This is essentially an application of the 80/20 rule, meaning that in any situation, 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the participants. Gladwell split the 20 percent, who he said were “people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,” into three types.
I’ve started categorizing and creating my Twitter network in lists based on those three classifications:
Connectors. These are who will get the word out, because they have an extraordinary knack for linking people, and special ability to span many different domains in their broadcasts. Guy Kawasaki, Featured Expert here in The World part of the Idea Hub, is an example of someone in my Connectors bucket.
Mavens. A Maven is an information specialist, someone I rely on for cutting edge information. They’re the first to know something because they’re a subject matter expert in a given area and they dig deeper than others to further their Mavenness. They’re not just knowledge accumulators, but creators, and they share that knowledge freely. They basically want to solve problems for people, mostly by solving their own. I keep all the authors and experts, for example, in my Mavens bucket.
Salesmen. Salesmen have the inherent power of persuasion and sway. I admire them because I lack that knack of being able to convince others to agree with my position. In other words, if they’re doing it or saying it, I want to know about for reasons beyond the content. I put all my opinion leaders, business leaders, news leaders, and any celebrity/personality connections in this bucket.
Even though these are broad categories, and fairly high altitude, I find it valuable to start with just the three buckets, because it helps me think about how I can leverage them to move a thought or idea forward. Sometimes the lines blur and I’ll simply make a choice. Sometimes I’ll put someone in a two or even all three lists, no harm no foul. After all, it’s just an initial sort. And rather than setting the limit at 50-50-50, I’m taking a page from Chris Brogan and allowing myself room to grow each to 150.
I’ve started doing the same thing with my LinkedIn and email databases. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about myself, my Twitter role, and thus my stream of Tweets as being of the Maven variety. And that’s how I plan to use Chris Brogan’s strategy of being in someone else’s 150.
I think Chris would approve, if only because Dunbar is defeated!
Matthew E. May is an innovation consultant and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.