As social media, and particularly social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, become part of the infrastructure of our lives there still seems to be no let up in the naysayers claiming that this is the end of human relationships as we know it. Actually, on that statement I’d agree with them: what gets me excited about social media is the behavioural not the technological shift.
Perhaps the question should be, from a professional perspective, can you have a relationship without social media? So, thinking personally I have, as of today, 1,300 Twitter followers, and I follow 290. I have 750 LinkedIn connections. I have a Klout score of 54 and a Peer Index score of 56. Apparently that makes me a “specialist … with a focused, highly engaged audience.” I’ve even accumulated 190 followers on Quora, a site I hardly ever use.
If it wasn’t for Twitter frankly I’d have been unemployed for the last two years. Every single freelance gig I’ve had has been as a direct result of a Twitter relationship (some I didn’t even know I had). Sometimes I’ve actively sort work, sometimes I’ve been approached. LinkedIn and my blog provide the social proof to support my 140 character statements. I’ve tried other methods, of course, including recruiters, but the directness of relationships you can have online has been what’s proven successful.
But where did these people come from? Can I really have a relationship with so many? And what sort of a one? I came across a post from 2007 that puts some theory onto this. The team at Search Engine People argue that, much as with the more scientific Levinger’s Relationship Stage Theory, there are clear levels of online relationship:
That’s all very well in theory, but how does that work in practice? Are there different ways we communicate, or different platforms for each? When, if at all, do these go offline? Or onto Facebook (a space that I, personally, reserve for non professional relationships). So, thinking about my network I’d say:
Before my network starts trying to work out which category they’re in and potentially take offence, this is a bit of an over simplification. I’ve deliberately avoided the “when do they move to Facebook” question. Professionally I’ll guest blog or speak for people that don’t necessarily fit into any category. I often bump into people who could be bracketed into any category. And as my ratio of Twitter followers to those I’m following shows, there’s a layer that comes before “acquaintance”. (“Casual passers by”? “Loiterers?” “People I should make more effort with?”)
But hopefully it illustrates the point. There is a value to online relationships, and that value is on a scale as it is with any offline relationship. If these relationships start online, how sure of their value can we be? We humans have always been wired to connect, to equivocate our professional status within our peer group. Since the explosion in virtual networking, the ability to assess the quality and trustworthiness of others has become both easier and more difficult. Everyone has an online footprint of some sort. A quick Google and you can start to build a picture. But how much trust should we put in those Klout scores? In those glowing recommendations on people’s LinkedIn profiles? Those more skilled in personal branding will always come out on top. (Perhaps it was ever thus.)
Are we now in a virtual relationship economy where connections can be evaluated as assets, no less important than physical assets or bank accounts? And is my boxing of relationships a reflection of my digital immigrant status? Do digital natives do it differently?
Charlotte Beckett is a London based digital strategist and blogger. With over ten years experience, she has worked both client and agency side across a variety of sectors. Most recently she has specialised in local government and not for profit, and is a firm believer in tech for good. (And a bit of a disclaimer: she has also recently been helping MyNewsdesk with our UK launch).