When Social Networks Are Not Social

A sharp article, “Pompon girl for feminism“, by Maureen Dowd from New York Times about Sheryl Sandberg’s social campaign draws some interesting observations about social networks and marketing. I am not going to dwell on the merits or otherwise of Sheryl’s agenda. However, I have an interest in the way she runs her campaign for world domination because she is such a powerful figure at Facebook.

Pompon girl for feminismImagine Mark Zuckerberg initiating a movement to support a cause that involves a large number of people.  Suddenly, many Facebook member would become nervous or uneasy. In a perfect world where there is no ulterior motive, this would mean nothing, but in our world when someone with access to the data generated by a social graph with one billion people has direct plans for a large group in our society, that makes a different story.

Sheryl Sandberg wants to create a large community made up of circles of 12 peers who meet monthly to discuss education modules. It is not clear how this community will be built although we know that heavy advertising is planned in the months ahead, but there is a Facebook question in there.  Are they going to network outside Facebook, are they going to be initiated, discovered, marketed in a separate environment?   Will the Facebook Search Graph going to be used? We will have to wait and see.  In the long run, if she is successful this project will make her position at Facebook difficult.  Perhaps this is an indication that she has plans beyond the social network giant.

People with high levels of energy who are using their authority to demand others to follow their way, will inevitably be attracted to the idea of applying pressure from the top down to “convince” the group members to adopt the prescribed practices.   The philosophy of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is based on ad-hoc connections and individual laissez-faire. In contrast, the Lean In Circles requires rigorous discipline with unforgiving rules designed filter out the “flakes”.

As Maureen Dowd  observed: “People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself”. This is a great point. The difference between a social network and an organisation is determined by its social vector representing the diffusion of influence. If the social vector goes top down and if it has a goal drafted by their leaders, then we are dealing with a vertical organisation. If it goes from bottom to the top and it has no pre-planned agenda, then the formation is a horizontal organisation. Lacking hierarchies, self-organising around emerging patterns, needs and motivations, such structures describe what we loosely define social networks.

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