The way our organizations are layered and interconnected makes a big difference in how information flows through those systems. For better or for worse, deliberate thought into how those systems are designed is vital to a business’ success.
But let’s take it down to a more individual level, and talk about how we design our personal networks, more specifically using social media tools.
There are a million ways to classify and define the different types of connections you make online. By affinity, interest, geography, level of familiarity, the list goes on. But I think of my connections in terms of depth more than anything else, and I leverage the capabilities and functions of my chosen platforms in order to manage them. I’m sharing this because it might help someone make sense of how they design their own networks, or suggest one or two new lenses through which to view what you’re building. Your mileage, of course, will vary.
Layer 1: Passive
Passive connections are the surface layer, and they’re beautifully suited to open networks like Twitter or Google+, or something like Chatter inside a firewall. The reason is that connections on those networks don’t require reciprocation to be active. Someone can solely be in the role of observer or consumer of information. The connection can be unidirectional.
They still allow for reactionary, directed communication, however. It’s an open dial tone. If I tag someone in Google+ post or send an @user reply to a person or business on Twitter, they’ll still receive it in their stream even if they’ve not connected back to me. Just like I can call you if I have your phone number, but you don’t have to have mine in order to receive the incoming call.
So I can follow people or businesses that interest me, but their following me back doesn’t really matter. If all I want to do it be able to see what they post publicly and have the ability to send them an open message if I choose, a passive connection works just fine.
Layer 2: Reciprocal
In open systems like Twitter or Google+, what a reciprocal connection allows me to do is “get closer” in technical terms. On Twitter, a mutual follow (meaning two users both follow one another) means that we can exchange Direct Messages, or communicate off the public timeline. So, my reciprocating a connection there, I’m giving someone the ability to message me in that capacity (and vice versa).
It’s opening up the communication possibilities just a little bit. It’s also why I follow so many people; it’s a courtesy especially because of my professional role, allowing customers and contacts to reach me quickly and privately. It’s got a downside too, thanks to those that abuse the open doorway. Either way, it’s a choice (and an emotionally charged one, sometimes, for those that equate reciprocal attention with some kind of validation).
On Google+, a reciprocal connection gives someone access to updates and posts that are just shared with connections in circles, rather than the public at large. And of course, on something that demands reciprocity, like Facebook or LinkedIn, it’s the *only* way someone gets behind the wall to share in certain content and updates. It’s much closer to a one-to-one connection and implies some intent to be in touch at a deliberate level.
Layer 3: Focused
Nearly every network these days allows for grouping and filtering of some kind. Twitter lists, Google+ Circles, Facebook groups or friend lists, Chatter groups, LinkedIn groups. It’s the network within the network, and to me, what it allows is focused attention.
This is exactly how I answer one of the questions I’m asked most often: How do you manage tens of thousands of connections across your social networks? Filters, filters, filters.
The large quantity of connections is fine to enable both of the first two layers, and facilitate preliminary ties with a lot of people. But the third one helps me narrow my attention to smaller groups that are easier to manage and actively engage with. The cool thing is that layers 1 and 2 feed this layer; something stops holding my interest and I can replace it with something or someone that I’ve found through the first two layers of connection.
The reason connective layers work like this is because they feed each other, and they’re all interconnected. This is how weak ties *become* strong ties eventually, as circumstances bring someone or a business to the fore and move them to a deeper layer of connection and back out again. Listening programs help with this, as does active participation and exposure to networks that are connected to your own via a node or two, but that reach beyond them via the connections of others.
The idea that the state of online networks are permanent, fixed, and only viewable through a single context is what paralyzes us when we’re trying to design either our individual social media systems or the ones we’re building for our business. That’s why it’s not quantity OR quality that matters, but a deliberate interconnection of both. Take that to a macro scale and start talking about organizational design or communication or making an entire business social and…well…perhaps we’ll tackle that in another post. Or several.
Systems are dynamic, and there is no one ring to rule them all anymore. But keeping in mind how connection layers work can help you make more sense of a world that has limitless – and exciting – possibilities.