Drinking Buddies and Network Effects

Do you throw back beers with the same few buddies at the same dive bar? Or do you spend your weekends on the house party circuit, sipping appletinis and trying to remember names?

No, I’m not already dreaming of Friday. Believe it or not, the answer to this question is an excellent indicator of your social network – and extremely relevant to nonprofits, campaigns, or anyone else who wishes to send a message through this network.

At last week’s Internet Advocacy Roundtable, Harald Katzmair of FAS.research gave an enlightening presentation (podcast – 83mb) on social network analysis and how it can help nonprofits do more with less.

Take the first scenario: your bar buddies. You have a small group of friends you identify very closely with. You spend time with them very frequently, not because they provide you opportunities, but because they reinforce your identity and you feel comfortable with them. This type of network is called a frozen network.

Its antithesis is the liquefied network, or the appletini sipper. You have a much wider group of friends and acquaintances, but you don’t associate them as closely with your own identity. You probably force conversation with some people you don’t necessarily like. In return, you gain economic value in the form of opportunity.

The reason this comparison is important to nonprofits and campaigns is that whether online or off, social networks exert pressure to conform to certain behaviors and values. A nonprofit with limited resources can benefit enormously from knowledge of a targeted network.

For example, people in close, frozen networks are much less receptive to mass media campaigns. Outside information is filtered through the group. This knowledge could spare a group an expensive, ineffective mass media campaign.

Conversely, people in liquefied networks form their opinions on a more individual basis and are easier to convert with mass marketing campaigns, but as a result their behavior patterns are less stable and predictable.

Groups can look to successful elite networks for inspiration. The corporate boards of the world’s biggest companies are often cited as examples of successful, heavily-interlinked social networks. There is considerable overlap between many major companies’ board members. These links are great for cooperation and trust between members of the network. Furthermore, the more intertwined members of the network are, the less likely they are to be converted to a set of values or actions that contradicts those of their network.

These findings support the aims of online organizers and social networking tools. By facilitating the interconnection of your members, you reinforce their dedication to the network and the values it represents.

Harald showed us an interesting simulation of a fire starting in a forest. The fire is your message and the trees are interconnected people. If you start the fire in the right place, such as with online influentials, it will spread efficiently until it burns out. But if you connect the people in the group, or even slightly increase the density of the trees in the simulation, you can reach a critical threshold where a single spark will set the forest ablaze.