Six degrees of separation is the concept that all people in the world, on average, are six or fewer social connections away from one other. In the early 2000s, this concept became very popular when social networking services were emerging, and Albert-László Barabási wrote his famous book Linked. Then we thought social networking services get all people in the world together. The reality has been very different. Social networking services are often glorified spam networks. Maybe part of the misunderstanding is that real social networks are never really public, and social networking is the wrong name for many of these services.
The most recent studies nowadays say the degree of separation is closer to five than six. And for example, for Facebook users, the number was only 3.57 in 2018. Many people have hundreds or thousands of direct contacts in Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking services.
Social networks have always been important in business and politics. An influential position in a social network gives power. The 2017 book, The Square and the Tower, illustrates examples of important networks, influencers and power structures in the past and our days.
But have social networking services changed this? Have they democratized social networks or made it easier for people to talk to each other? The hope was mostly that social networks enabled people to talk directly to each other and better understand each other, making people more equal. The development has often been quite the opposite as social network services polarize people’s opinions, and people tend to talk but not listen. We now have many social media superstars that people like to follow.
What has been the impact on business? Real social networks have definitely influenced people on what and why they decide to buy. But it is not so clear how the current online social networking services are linked to this. I wrote earlier about TikTok and a new era of social influence and how social networking algorithms are not always optimal for getting visibility. Social media marketing focuses more and more on celebrities and superstars.
Algorithms are one part of how social networks behave, but it is not the only component. It also depends on our behavior and how we use or want to use social networking services. How many people want to develop trust with their contacts, how many want to have good discussions and how many want to understand other people and their opinions better?
Trust is built based on positive experiences, which is also true of digital trust in social networking services. One could say many social networking services have become spamming networks. People just like to promote their thoughts and businesses. In many cases, it’s not about discussions but multi-broadcasting. All parties want to broadcast their views.
Facebook often promotes personal life or political views. LinkedIn is more often used to promote one’s own business, personal brand and own competence. If your posts are mainly to market your company and products and your private messages to sell something, could you even call that a social network?
Fake profiles and marketing bots are extreme examples of how social networking services are being used. If LinkedIn ever wanted to be the network of trusted contacts in business, it has failed badly. It doesn’t even check if users are real people. LinkedIn is an excellent place to have up to date contact details, but otherwise, it is not really a social network but a marketing broadcasting platform.
Your significant personal social networks are probably quite different from your contact networks. Referring to The Square and the Tower book, your LinkedIn profile is more like your network and behavior on a city’s square. But your more important network includes who you physically meet with, with whom you spend time, who you trust and listen to.
Maybe the problem is more fundamental. The critical and influential social contacts and networks are rarely public. If we want to have a solution to manage our social networks, evaluate the importance of different people and trust our connections in different contexts, we need more private solutions. We don’t want to share those things with everyone else.
Social media is the right name for services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. But it is a mistake to think they represent our real social network. We need new solutions to manage our entire social networks and how we communicate with them. Those solutions must be based more on our personal experiences, not what we want to declare to the rest of the world. What we need now are private social networks.