Too big, too small, or just right? Balancing your social connections

An MIT professor analyzes social graph data to find where influence meets connectedness -- and how to maximize it

Social estrangement is a strange concept. It pivots on the notion that individuals can be totally surrounded by, enmeshed in, and dependent on society, but still not feel like they belong to it. This relates to the concept of the "lonely crowd," which many people consider the defining condition of modernism.

Social influence in a virtual world is a strange condition. You rarely meet any of your followers face to face, though you often have their static profile photos (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on) to give you a rough sense of what they look like. Without the pleasure of their acquaintance, it can be hard to grasp who they are, why they're "moved" by you, and whether, if you ever connected more directly, you would feel comfortable in their presence. Once you have many thousands of followers, it becomes near-impossible to identify a specific thread that binds you to them as people -- other than the fact that they follow you on social networks and are (presumably) humans alive at the present moment.

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True influence means that your words, ideas, deeds, and general example are adopted by many others. Maintaining such influence depends on your ability to strike a middle ground between various extremes. On the one hand, what you're saying or doing is not so unique (aka weird) that no one else can or wants to relate to you. On the other, you're not so much like everybody else that nobody notices you and you contribute nothing new to the social repertoire.

In other words, you have a distinct perspective on the world and deep social graph of connected, like-minded, and responsive friends and followers. You're neither following one and only one voice (the one in your head), nor are you simply following what everybody's chattering about. And you're neither undersharing nor oversharing.

Or, in terms of the social graph that defines your status in the world, you're neither underconnected nor overconnected with the world around you. Nobody you know, including yourself, wields disproportionate influence. You and everybody you know influences and is influenced by everybody else in rough parity.

That feels like a paradox: You can maximize your personal influence by essentially throttling that influence when it becomes disproportionate to other people's influence. How can that possibly be?

What I found fascinating about this recent article is how it confirms this paradoxical intuition. It reports on a social-graph-analysis study by MIT's Alex Pentland on idea dissemination within business networks.

Pentland found that the most productive business socials are those where there are fewer outliers who are either underconnected or overconnected.

For example, [Pentland found that] by controlling the spread of ideas, he improved the performance of a group of currency traders. In 2011 he analysed around 10m transactions from 1.6m users of eToro, a financial-trading site that lets people communicate and copy other people's trades. He found that traders who were isolated from others or over-connected did worse than those who struck a balance. The former group was deprived of information and the latter became stuck in an echo chamber. By using subtle incentives to get the loners to interact more and the social butterflies to reduce their information intake, he was able to double the profitability of the group.

Here's how I interpret that explanation. Overisolation hobbles your decisioning skills by depriving you of both data and context (the information and the contextualization generated through social interactions). Overconnectedness hobbles you by skewing both your data and your context to whatever the popular preoccupations of your social circle happen to be at this time. If you fall into either "outlier" category, you become less influential in your social network. That's because your insights have become less valid, hence less useful, to the groups that might otherwise pay attention to you.

Influence is all about holding people's attentions through the expectation that you're worth following. In other words, you're slightly "strange" (that is, unique) without becoming too "estranged" (aka irrelevant).

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