Knowledge Sharing & Ambient Intimacy Part II

A friend of mine read my last post and wrote:

“Let me offer a counter-posit: the Web is also an environment where loose connections (many of which I WOULD call superficial) can gain disproportionate weight compared with deeper, more substantive connections…

But in the current Web 2.0 world, the emphasis for many is in HOW MANY "loose" connections they can make, not how many of the "right" connections. Consider the emphasis on crowdsourcing (Wikipedia) over authority (Brittanica), and how the former is seen as "better" my many online enthusiasts.

I’m no Andrew Keen, and I won’t say that the current emphasis on broad over deep is necessarily a disaster. But I think it is definitely a mixed bag.”

This is an important point. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that having a million friends on Facebook makes you more “connected” than having personal relationships with 150 of the “right” people. What I’m suggesting is that you can now have 150 strong ties AND a lot of loose ties with more people who are also the “right” people for you to know. This does not mean having thousands of negligible connections with random people.

For instance, on Twitter I follow about 150 people (interesting to see if reflect the Dunbar number, although that’s not intentional on my part). I can’t see the value in following 10,000 people the way some people do. By diluting the relationships to that extreme, I might as well not connect at all. But with the smaller list of people I follow on Twitter (some of whom I know personally, some of whom I don’t), I’m able to quickly take a very loose tie and quickly ramp it up into an email exchange, phone call or in person meeting.

So when my friend points out the fallacy of emphasizing the number of social network connection you have, I agree. Social media based networks just allow us to break Dunbar’s 150 person limit and establish valuable ties with maybe 1,500 people (which happens to be the limit shown in the green circles in the ambient intimacy chart from my last post). That means we can expand out access to collective wisdom by a factor of 10. But it still doesn’t let us have meaningful ties with 150,000 people.


  1. Craig says:

    Hi Sean,

    think you make a good point, but much depends on the person/business.

    A celebrity probably wants and needs that ‘superficial’ high number of connections to keep them in the limelight, where as a nonprofit would probably benefit from fewer, but more meaningful relationships that create real advocates.

    The broad v deep river analogy is a good one – if you go too deep then you risk excluding others.



  2. Brad Rourke says:

    The preceding post and this one are excellent; thank you. The fundamental ideas that you are conveying are key. I see the points as follows: 1) Online connections can support (and develop into) other kinds of connections; 2) Online tools allow a looser (“ambient”) kind of connection which gives a new way for connections to develop.

    But in many respects the numbers issues are far less important than the “ambient intimacy” concept. For one reason, “friend” numbers are variable across platforms — a lot of followers in Twitter is different than a lot of Friends in Facebook, or of Subscribers in FriendFeed.

    The other reason is that the act of following or friending is a different statement for different people.

    Just sticking to Twitter for a minute, for me, I have relatively few people I follow in comparison to the number who follow me. And I already miss stuff from people in my stream. So there are two things going on when I follow someone:

    1) I am genuinely interested in seeing what they have to say

    2) I want to “let people know” I am interested in them

    But think about someone else who perhaps has 10,000 people they are following (not a marketing account, but a real person). This person must surely be using a desktop application that allows them to filter. So here, what they are saying is:

    1) I am happy to have other people know I follow this person (so they can have a “stamp of approval”)

    2) I MAY (or may not) be interested in what they have to say

    In the first overall example (few followees), I see the pool of people I follow as ripe for a shift to more intimate media (email, DM). In the second example, my pool of followees is not as viable a candidate for added intimacy — I need another screen in place.

    Not sure if this is helpful or not.

  3. Craig and Brad, thanks for the comments. You both make important points. I was trying to look just at knowledge sharing, so I would argue that Craig’s point re: celebrities wanting high numbers of followers is correct, but separate from my point (since the celebrity in that example isn’t trying to “leverage the collective wisdom” of their “ambient intimacy” connections.

    But you both make the important point that different people can use social media tools with different purposes.

  4. Beth Kanter says:

    The point is to follow the few to get to the many – don’t you think?

  5. Yep. Filtering as a means to digest vast quantities of info. I’m with you Beth.