When it comes to social networks, bigger isn’t always better

·5 min read
<span class="caption">It’s when we use our online networks as pipes, not prisms, that small matters and seems to be valuable.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(Shutterstock)</span></span>
It’s when we use our online networks as pipes, not prisms, that small matters and seems to be valuable. (Shutterstock)

Bigger is always better. Many of us think this is true when it comes to building our online networks of social media friends, connections and followers. But new research suggests the opposite may be closer to the truth: curating small networks of trusted connections may be smarter in the long run. While this may seem counterintuitive, it also comes with a caveat.

We often feel compelled, and are even encouraged by social media platforms, to grow our networks. Consider all the prompts about “someone else you might know” and “who to follow.” We all want the sociometrics (that number of friends or followers posted in the corner of your profile) to look good.

Offline and online social networks

Both offline and online, our social networks can function as either prisms or pipes.

As prisms, they broadcast to others our likes, dislikes, opinions, interests, activities and more. They signal who we are, or want to be, to our network of social connections.

As pipes, they act as conduits through which help and resources can flow. Using our networks as pipes is an important part of how we build relationships. We give and receive advice, advocacy, endorsement, emotional support and tangible things (like entrepreneurs do, for example).

Studies of face-to-face networks have generally shown that, whether we use our networks as prisms or pipes, bigger is better.

Group of business people sitting at a table
People don’t always have the willingness to ask their online networks for something. (Shutterstock)

But what about online?

We flock to social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram because it’s easy to view, share and store our connections, allowing us to communicate with them whenever we want. That’s what makes connecting online and offline so different. We can’t search and find a comment we made six days ago to a friend over coffee. We can, however, find and reshare a conversation we had with our Facebook “friends” three years ago. It turns out that’s a really important distinction.

It’s when we use our online networks as pipes, not prisms, that small matters and seems to be valuable. In a recent study of Canadian entrepreneurs, our team of researchers uncovered this counterintuitive point and shed light on the reasons why.

We think it suggests some broader insights.

Using our online networks

For people to actually use their online networks as pipes for resources and support, three things need to come together. First, we need to believe we have the ability to ask for or give a resource or support (termed exchange). Second, we need to have a way to actually make the exchange happen. And finally, we need to want to conduct the exchange.

All those digital viewing, scanning, sharing, searching and storing capabilities of our social media networks make it really easy for us to believe we have the ability and arrangements to use our networks as pipes. I can quickly and easily ask my online network for something I need and get a quick response. But our research suggests that we don’t always have the willingness to ask.

Through interviews with entrepreneurs, we uncovered that the reason is likely that people are really worried about what others will think. This perceived social judgment risk can get in the way of entrepreneurs getting helpful resources from their online networks. We suspect it’s not just entrepreneurs who are worried about this. That’s because perceived social judgment risk is a product of audience collapse, which reduces our willingness to reach out online.

Audience collapse happens when we add people to our online networks from all aspects of our lives. These might be people we know well and people we barely know; personal connections, work acquaintances, volunteer connections, hometown connections and those with shared interests and hobbies.

By building these varied and oversized networks, and inviting so many different people to join, our willingness to ask for help goes down. With all that searching, viewing and sharing, who knows where our request might land?

Ipad shows images of multiple people in a web to illustrate a social network
Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to social media networks. (Shutterstock)

Our research reveals that many of us likely perceive a lot of social judgment risk in asking for anything but information from our online networks. We are worried that others will judge our asks as weak, needy, unsure, confused, too personal or otherwise inappropriate, making us less willing to seek help. This dark side implication of bigger is better social media networking is rarely discussed.

If this resonates, what can you do?

To make our social media networks useful as pipes, we suggest creating trust networks. These are purpose-built to stay small — yes, small. Only add people who will support, not negatively judge, any ask for help you might make — these are the people you trust.

A trust network is likely to be very high in reciprocity, or the giving and getting of help, because all members feel it is a safe place to ask for and give help. It becomes a really useful pipe network where small, not big, is valuable.

So, if you want to use your online networks as a prism to signal things to the world — stay big. But if you want to give and get help, then create a purpose-built, small trust network on social media. We think you’ll be glad you did.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Claudia Smith, University of Victoria.

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Claudia Smith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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