Wharton Prof. Lori Rosenkopf argues that we’re not benefitting from “shorter network paths” created by social media, and offers two solutions to activate them.

Social networks continue to connect us every day, bringing once fragmented networks closer than ever.

At the 2019 London Wharton Global Forum, Wharton Management Prof. Lori Rosenkopf shared how these shorter network paths form “hubs” — people with many connections that don’t necessarily know each other. And why she thinks this actually makes it more difficult to activate our connections — and how to strengthen our ties.

How Connected Are We?

“A question that social network theorists have been asking each other for about 90 years is, how connected are our social networks?,” said Prof. Rosenkopf.

She referenced Stanley Milgram’s “small-world” study, a social network experiment to determine how many people it would take to connect a package to an unfamiliar person. Even though only a fraction of the packages made their way from Nebraska to the final destination in Massachusetts, Milgram famously concluded that there are “six degrees of separation” between two people.

A 2016 Facebook study crunched the data on their then 1.8 billion users and found that the separation to be 3.5 degrees. Although network paths seem to be getting smaller, Rosenkopf believes that we’re not receiving the benefits.

“The bigger our social networks are the more connected these hubs are. They are making these short paths for us. But if you want to activate a network path that means you’re going to have to go through hubs on those shorter paths. Hubs are the very people who create what I like to call ‘friction’ on paths.”

A Social Capital Problem

She gave an example of how she might use her network to invite Barack Obama to speak to Wharton undergraduate students. Rosenkopf knows Penn President Amy Gutmann, who could reach out to Joe Biden, who could then contact Obama — but that would be asking a lot from people who are overwhelmed by many requests.

“This is the small world paradox: our paths are getting shorter, but these shorter paths are harder for us to really activate.”

The Solution

Rosenkopf highlighted two possible solutions for activating our network paths:

1. Prune

Most people receive too much of the same information in their feeds. “Think about where you’re getting that redundant information and think about whether you need all of those feeds coming into what you’re typically looking at,” she said.

For example, because Prof. Rosenkopf’s mother likes, shares, and sometimes even calls Rosenkopf to talk about her cousins’ posts, she can safely mute their feeds without losing the connection — just like pruning a garden.

2. Prime

“On the sparse side of your network is where you get the unique information. Whoever is being the hub between you and those contacts that you’re targeting — those are the ones that you want to improve your connections and strengthen your ties with,” she said.

“The stronger your connection is with them personally, the more you’re likely to get that favor or request that you’re asking for. That priming is something that you’re going to do that doesn’t rely on social networks.”

To do this, think about some tried-and-true ways to provide value to people in your network.

“How can you volunteer for a cause that that person is interested in? How can you forward them some information that you think they may personally like?”

The trifecta of network goals — learn, relate, and share.

Rosenkopf referred to a Venn diagram with three circles representing network goals — learn, relate, share — and described how different network features such as hubs and unique ties can promote these social desires.

Her advice: “Prune your networks. Prime your networks. And I hope that you can wind up in that very zen middle intersection of the Venn diagram.”

Posted: November 15, 2019

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