Trying to explain network effects & motivations for using social media tools

picture-101I’m putting together a series of short guides for different clients on how to use social media tools in shared learning and online outreach. These will be a mash-up of my existing practical One Page Guides with a bit more theory on effective use of social tools.

One of the important bits of theory I want to try and get across is around network effects. Often the reasons given for using a given social media tool focus on the ways they are used once a network effect has kicked in: once, for example, lots of people have started following a Twitter account, or once a network of residents has grown big. However, when you start using a social media tool – particularly if your interests are in sectors other than technology (community music for example) – there is often a slow lead in before the network effect starts generating dividends from the time spent using the tool. Thus, it can be important to offer a different motivations model for using new social media tools.

You will probably notice, from the paragraph above, that I’ve not found a great way to communicate this point.. and I would really value your input.

Below is what I’ve written for one of the guides so far, but it’s much in need of a re-write. How could this be better said? Or should I be saying something else entirely?

Being open to the network effect

Many social media tools have a network effect. For each extra person who starts using them they become more useful (for example, the first telephone landlines had a big network effect – when only one person had a fixed line, it wasn’t all that useful a thing to own!). When you start using a new tools you may not have a ready-made network to join in on. If you focus on making new social media tools work well for you in your existing day-to-day work, then when the network effect kicks in it’s an added bonus.

For example, with social bookmarking, you can switch from saving your favourite links on your own computer (or scribbling down websites you must go back to look at on little scraps of paper), to using delicious to save them in a public online space. This is useful to you – as it means you can find your favourite links from any computer.

But it also brings a possible network effect. You might find people with shared interests who have bookmarked the same links as you. Or you may start to find a shared ‘tag’ to add to your bookmarks which helps you share information with an informal network of other users of the service.

If you start using a new tool only for the network effect, and you expect to get instant benefit from it – you may be disappointed. Networks are like communities, they take time to develop and grow. However, if you use a new social tool and weave it into your day-to-day practice, then you are sure to find a new connections, ideas and opportunities emerge over time.

6 thoughts on “Trying to explain network effects & motivations for using social media tools”

  1. DK: Respect for different learning styles means that sometimes I show, sometimes I write, sometimes I discuss etc.

    In this case I’m looking to equip people with an understanding of tools that is based on principles. Understanding of principles can be helped by demonstration – but demonstration alone cannot reveal underlying principles.

  2. Hi Tim – I think this a tricky subject, partly because “networking” has become a diminished term due to social networking sites with an undue emphasis on quality and not quantity. Its very obvious for example where people have started using twitter under somebodys social media advice that they need to build up a network by quickly following lots of people in the hope they’ll follow back, and then often they’ll issue particular kinds of tweets in the aim of appearing interesting/relevant, but what they lack is engaging in any quality dialogue.

    So maybe if we can really stress quality, dialogue and sharing and steer people away from quantity and from too much self-serving/self promotion we can help a little towards encouraging better quality networks?

    Actually I’m not sure if that helps at all towards your question?!

  3. @mas

    That does help indeed. I think what I’m trying to get to by explaining ‘network effects’ is to show that, unless your interests match with a ready-made online community of interest (.e.g. people talking tech… you can always find those…) you need to take a slow organic approach to growing your use of social tools.

    However, talking ‘network effects’ may not be the best way to get at this?

    It strikes as worth reflecting on how engaging in online spaces can increase one or more of the:

    * Breadth
    * Depth
    * Velocity

    of conversations and dialogue. And different strategies are appropriate to building your own networks as suited for these different goals.

    It may be interesting in a pedagogical resource to offer a decision tool – that helps people to consider which form of network they wish to build for themselves…

  4. ah yes that sounds good – something along the lines of being clear about purpose and how different strategies can be used towards them.

    I think theres maybe a broader challenge to take on too towards getting useful online conversations/networking going. The problem at the moment is the most active online are those either with a particular interest in the geek side of things, or those trying to promote themselves – because of this its likely that the conversations that end up dominating your networks can quickly become boring. Likewise especially with twitter people can understandably be put off by the gossipy stuff or “I need a cup of tea” posts, and yet its these little snippets that are maybe more towards fostering community than those that broadcast.

    I wonder if something that allowed people to find people according to subjects and discussions they are interested in would help? At the mo we search people out according to how relevant they may seem by their job title etc. but maybe we need something thats more focussed on what people want to talk about ie. a “charity fundraiser” might seem relevant but they’re not if all they do is talk about their fundraising services – what we really want is to take part in discussions about how to fundraise, & sources of fundraising.

    Personally I spend more time reading results from the search terms in nambu than I do from those I follow on twitter now – but while this is more interesting and relevant for me I don’t tend to engage in those discussions because largely they are people I don’t follow and wouldn’t likely follow me, so although their post is maybe interesting to me theres little prospect of actual networking or ongoing dialogue.

    So maybe if we could crate something that helps link together relevant debates people could see more relevance and would more likely have useful conversations?

  5. Hi Tim

    Just getting back online and picking up on some of the subjects you’re discussing. I agree with all that’s said above, including some of the show (diagrams etc may make it easier to understand the principles,some videos also help and I often find this with the videos I see from Commoncraft –

    With regards to your explanation, I understand it so it must be work 🙂 You may want to think about adding some more examples, for instance one of the things I’ve found through blogging is that even when I’m not posting I’m still gaining hits and views, and obviously producing something that is of interest. This increases when I do post and I would hope is the start of the dialogue, conversations etc and a potential network effect (my network has definately grown through blogging and following other peoples blogs.)

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