Social Media’s Expanding Relationship Universe

  • Gerald C. Kane
  • April 07, 2015

Thanks to technology, our “circles” have widened to include not just friends, family, and coworkers, but also followers, fans, and tweeps.

Part 2 of a 5-part series examining how social media has and will affect how organizations functions. The series is derived from a full-length article found in MIS Quarterly Executive.

Social psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester contend that “relatedness” is a basic psychological need. Technology platforms that enable new ways to relate, enhance existing social capabilities, or make social networks more transparent have the potential to help meet a basic psychological need.

The ability of technology-based social networks to achieve this potential, however, depends on several factors identified by researchers studying offline social networks — proximities, interactions, relationships, and flows. Understanding these four factors and their different roles in online and offline social networks is critical to understanding the potential value of social tools within the enterprise.

Flows represent the transfer of information from one person to another. While some pre-existing connection between individuals is necessary for flows in offline networks, social media enables flows without the necessity of any previous relationship between users. A good example is Twitter hashtags or trending topics, which allow people to find and organize information around a common interest, even if they do not know each other.

These types of flows allow individuals to remotely participate in live events, such as sporting events, unfolding news stories (the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the 2015 trial of the accused bomber, for instance), or awards shows. They also allow groups to organize quickly in response to an unforeseen crisis, such as when the American Red Cross used Twitter to coordinate aid in response to Hurricane Sandy. New video feed platforms, such as Periscope and Meerkat, may take these information flows to a new level.

Relationships are perhaps the most common types of connections in social networking platforms. Relationships are persistent connections that define the relationship over time — such as friend, follower, or connection. These new digital relationships typically allow individuals to more efficiently maintain a larger network of connections, because they are tapped only when needed or provide serendipitous access to information.

While we have considerable control over the definition of our nuanced relationships offline, platform designers define what a relationship consists of online. They determine whether we are friends, followers, or connections, and users must figure out how to relate given these imposed constraints. Anyone who has ever had the difficulty determining whether a coworker should be a “friend” on Facebook recognizes the difficulties this lack of relational nuance on social media platforms can create.

Interactions are discrete exchanges between people, such as by direct message or email. Research into offline networks has shown that the strength of a connection is often an important factor in predicting how networks behave. An advantage of this type of connection is that it allows users to target particular users with particular types of information or inquiries. Interactions allow much greater expression of the strength of the relationship, because they can measure how frequently and deeply you communicate with given others — an important criterion for the value of certain relationships.

A downside is that it can create information overload, as people are easily included in a greater number of interactions, as anyone spending hours wading through an overloaded inbox can attest. Recognizing interactions as a type of social media connection also suggests that “social media” actually predates Facebook, going all the way back to the dawn of email in 1971.

Proximities are when individuals located close to each other. Proximities may represent an increase in the possibility of a connection, rather than a connection itself. In the case of electronic proximity, such as membership in a shared interest or professional group, individuals may be more likely to interact when they both participate in that group. The value of proximity has already been identified by businesses: KLM, for example, allows passengers to select whom to sit next to on flights by allowing them to review each other’s Facebook profiles. Mobile devices are also supporting geographic proximity through GPS tracking. The ride-sharing company Uber matches drivers and passengers based on proximity, and the commuting app Waze shares traffic data based on reports from other drivers nearby.

New Ways of Relating

While people have been able to network via digital tools for decades, one of the reasons that social media has become so popular in recent years is the variety of different types of relationships that can now be supported by social media. At the same time, when relationships are carried out over digital channels, it also results in capabilities for interacting that we haven’t before known, as social media injects these connections with new capabilities and features that require us to learn to relate in new ways.

For instance, research has long shown that although social networks are a very powerful predictor of individual performance, people are usually extremely poor at accurately identifying what their social networks look like or how to improve them. Today, Facebook immediately identifies mutual friends. LinkedIn notes how many degrees of separation you are from a desired contact, and the best channels for gaining an introduction. The once-elusive structure of the (non-electronic) social network is now available for anyone to see, and equally available to all, on social media platforms.

I expect that the next generation of enterprise social network tools will provide even more advanced features that further allow us to relate in novel ways and leverage our connections more intentionally for particular purposes. They will provide analytical support for recommending not only whom you might want to connect with, but also whom might be most beneficial to connect with given your current network and career goals. They will also provide managers with network maps and dashboards that will allow them to visualize in privacy-sensitive ways whether their employees are interacting in ways that are best suited to achieve organizational goals. Armed with these real-time analytics of employee networks, managers can design interventions to improve network performance and provide data to test their efficacy.

In short, social media tools have come a long way in supporting how people relate to others. Yet, I suspect that we have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible with social media in organizations.