Social Networking: Theory and Practice

August 25, 2009
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I’ve been a student of social network theory for years, enjoying the work of Duncan Watts, Albert-László Barabási, Jon Kleinberg, and a number of other researchers investigating this field. It should be no surprise that a topic that is so core to our humanity has attracted attention from some of our best and brightest.

And I’ve dabbled a bit on the theoretical side myself. The TunkRank measure (I’m indebted to Jason Adams for his implementing it on a live site!) attempts to take the most basic assumption about our social behavior – the constraint that we have a finite attention budget – and explore its implications for influence over social networks. I have a few unexplored hypotheses queued up for when I can find the spare time to try validate them empirically!

But why settle for theory? We live in an age where social networks compete with web search (and perhaps complement search) as the hottest online technologies. If we’re not reading about Google vs. Bing, we’re reading about Facebook vs. Twitter, with LinkedIn offering a third way that seems to co-exist with its more storied peers. In this post, I’d like to focus on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn, despite its feature creep, is still

I’ve been a student of social network theory for years, enjoying the work of Duncan Watts, Albert-László Barabási, Jon Kleinberg, and a number of other researchers investigating this field. It should be no surprise that a topic that is so core to our humanity has attracted attention from some of our best and brightest.

And I’ve dabbled a bit on the theoretical side myself. The TunkRank measure (I’m indebted to Jason Adams for his implementing it on a live site!) attempts to take the most basic assumption about our social behavior – the constraint that we have a finite attention budget – and explore its implications for influence over social networks. I have a few unexplored hypotheses queued up for when I can find the spare time to try validate them empirically!

But why settle for theory? We live in an age where social networks compete with web search (and perhaps complement search) as the hottest online technologies. If we’re not reading about Google vs. Bing, we’re reading about Facebook vs. Twitter, with LinkedIn offering a third way that seems to co-exist with its more storied peers. In this post, I’d like to focus on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn, despite its feature creep, is still fairly old-school: its raison d’être is for users to build, maintain, and exploit their professional networks. In theory, connections on LinkedIn represent present or past working relationships that become the basis for referrals – whether the goal is employment, sales, or partnership. LinkedIn is not the only professionally oriented social network, but at this point it’s certainly the dominant one.

But I’ve found at least two additional ways to use LinkedIn that I’d like to share:

Intelligence gathering. For reasons I don’t yet claim to understand, people share far more information about themselves – and in a much cleaner, structured form – on LinkedIn than in perhaps any other online medium. Most people’s resumes are not available online, but their LinkedIn profiles are tantamount to resumes. Moreover, their structured format makes it possible for LinkedIn to assemble aggregate profiles of companies, revealing composite pictures that must drive some of those companies’ legal and HR departments batty! At a higher level, LinkedIn also works well as a discovery tool – much more so now they’ve enabled faceted search. It’s still a bit tricky to explore people and companies by topic, but far more effective using LinkedIn than using any other tool I’m aware of.

Meeting new people. Cold-calling, spamming–pick your poison. In short, LinkedIn doesn’t have to only be about connecting with people you already know. But there’s an art to sending unsolicited messages: you have to pass the moral equivalent of a CAPTCHA by proving that your communication strategy isn’t indiscriminate. Let me use a personal example (that Maisha Walker was nice enough to write up in her Inc. magazine column). I decided that I wanted to find everyone on LinkedIn who might be interested in HCIR ‘09. So I searched for everyone whose profiles indicated interests in both IR and HCI and sent out a targeted message (in fact, an invite with personalized message – a feature I recently feared they’d killed). The results were overwhelmingly positive. I’m not sure how many of the people I contacted will attend, but I raised awareness without inflicting annoyance. Better yet, one of the people I contacted then discovered I was looking for volunteers to review the draft of my book – and I thus obtained hours of help of someone who, just a day before, had never heard of me!

What intrigues me about LinkedIn (and other social networks) is the extent to which I am exploiting attention market inefficiencies (as LinkedIn may be doing as well). For example, LinkedIn makes it easy to send unsolicited invitations to anyone. Granted, you can lose this privilege by even having a couple of people respond to invitations with “I don’t know this person.” There’s also the question of why people’s social norms around disclosure are so different on LinkedIn than anywhere else–people not only post the content of their resumes, but go through the effort of providing it to LinkedIn in a structured form! Meanwhile, LinkedIn keeps tightfisted control over the information it aggregates–understandably, they recognize that this content is their most valuable asset.

People are still getting used to the idea of social networks. It will be interesting to see how their use evolves, particularly in term of information and attention market efficiency.

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