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Social Networks and Muscles

Written by: Bill Sherman on Monday, 11 August 2008, 6:15 AM

Over the past few days, I’ve looked at social networks as fisheries and software code. Let’s look at social networks from one other perspective–let’s look at social networks as muscles.

Keith Ferrazzi, in his book Never Eat Alone, compares relationships with muscles. His point is that when you have a relationship, it’s not something you hoard. He explains that relationships grow through recurring engagement and interaction. Interestingly, he tells a story about an individual who could have leveraged a key connection to help a friend but chose not to–because he was “saving that contact for a rainy day.”

Keith’s point is worth exploring from the broader perspective of social networks and social capital. Humans have approximately 320 bilateral muscle pairs. If we want to exercise them, we can do so in many ways. We know that exercise is good for us, but it takes both effort and discipline to make it a part of modern life.

A couple of years ago, I bought some exercise equipment. For a few months, I worked out . . . then, I fell out of the habit. I let my life be filled with other activities (you might say that I became lazy). I knew that exercise would be good, but I let myself be busy with other activities. You might say that I had a “weak-tie” connection with the exercise equipment. As you might guess, I received few benefits.

In that way, social capital functions as a form of capital. Capital is a means of production. if you have $100,000 you could put it under your mattress–watching inflation atrophy your currency’s value year-after-year. Or, you could invest that money: perhaps in a savings account; a stock, mutual fund, or EFT, or even start a company. Capital that doesn’t get put to work loses value. That’s certainly true of money (financial capital) and muscles (a tongue-in-cheek form of physical capital).

We all have weak-ties in our social network. We meet someone at a conference; we chat with our friends and neighbors; and we connect with people who have similar interests. Yet, polite small talk and passive LinkedIn connections only go so far.

The people who build the greatest social capital get engaged with their networks.

  • They might rally friends together to create a solution within their community.
  • They may launch a project and invite friends across the world to participate.
  • They could hear about a friend’s project and dive in with passion (and encourage others to join in).

Exercise offers systemic benefits to the body. You just don’t burn fat and strengthen one set of muscles. You improve blood pressure, strengthen your heart and lungs, reduce cholesterol, etc.

If relationships are like muscles, then the body represents the entire social network. Positive investments in these relationships create benefits across the social network (whether it’s a community, an affinity group, a corporation, or a nation).

So, if social networks are like muscles, it’s good to give them a workout several times each week.

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