Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Holiday reflections on social navigation

Many of us are mailing holiday cards this time of year. I am a bit irregular about this, averaging a big holiday mailing every couple years or so. This year I am stocked up on cards and stamps and have been mailing in earnest.

I have spent more than enough time at my computer this year and thought it would be fun to give my word processor a holiday break. By reverting to a ball point pen I am unfortunately not doing my posture any favors. I am more hunched at my desk than ever in repeated attempts to recreate the legible handwriting of my youth. But by spending the time to create each letter individually, I do enjoy a more real sense of connection to my recipients. That is, I get to reflect on my wonderful collection of friends at more length and connect that way, even though none of my cards comes with a "reply" button.

As I sift through my old address books (both online and off) it's obvious that my friends are even more diverse than the ways I have met them. Mostly I know them through shared activities such as piano, bike racing, organizational development, computer science, Unitarian Universalism, and evangelical Christianity. I have to admit some of those activities make odd pairings -- for example, the Unitarian and Christian circles of my life never mix unless I go out of my way to bring together friends from every chapter of my life.

I'm sure you, dear reader, also have many different groups of friends in your life. It's a wonderful part of being human. But did you know that, aside from manifesting the quirky twists and turns of your own life, your various groups of friends also literally make it possible for you to navigate the social world? That if you had but one homogeneous group of friends, no matter how wonderful they were, your ability to navigate socially would be crippled?

Let me give a very pertinent example of what I mean by "navigate socially." In my last post I referred to a recently published interview of HBS Professor Lee Fleming. I was very intrigued by his research, and thought I would try to get in touch with him. But how exactly should I get in touch with him? That is just what I mean by navigating socially.

It turns out that Lee's homepage on the Internet includes a reference to his bike racing career. And wouldn't you know, Lee raced bikes as a PhD student at Stanford just when my old Princeton cycling teammate Derek Bouchard Hall was racing bikes and getting his master's degree at Stanford. I e-mailed Derek to see if he knew Lee, and before I knew it got a message from Lee himself, entitled "Small World Cycling Networks."

In other words, it seemed that Lee and I were best connected through our mutual interest in SNA, but actually we enjoyed a much stronger link through our mutual bike racing teammate Derek. (Derek eventually got his MBA at Harvard, where Lee is a professor, making this connection even stronger.)

The moral of the story: Diverse groups of friends are not just a blessed gift, but also a key ingredient to making the connections you want. Keep this in mind the next time you're using LinkedIn to make a contact. It's a great tool but rather monochromatic amidst the rainbow of possible relationships you can tap into.

BTW, don't take my word on this. Duncan Watts, Peter Dodds, and Mark Newman have published a wonderful little paper on this topic. They analyze a very intuitive model and show that 2-3 different groups or categories of friends is ideal. If you have only one group of friends, or if you have ten different groups of friends, then you risk asking the wrong person in your attempt to get one step closer to your social goal.

Next time I'll share the fascinating conversation I had with Lee about his working paper: "Small Worlds and Regional Innovative Advantage."


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