Author: Chris Swan

Today, everything has changed. Fifteen to twenty years ago, we used to think about connection very differently than we do today. The concept of social media was a topic for daydreams, not reality. The people we knew, “Connections,” were linked to us in some tangible way; family, friends, work, school, or maybe someone you met on vacation. The technology of the day was time-consuming and presented a barrier to connecting; phones, letters, or face-to-face. Then we entered the hyper connection age, and the number of possible connections exploded.

In the past, connections who we would have relied upon for wise advice – because they were specialists in their field of law, medicine or gardening, etc. – would today be considered generalists. Our connections and the incredible ease of making new ones is turning us all into specialized experts.

Studies suggest the human brain forms close bonds with only 150 people at any one time. This concept was originally introduced by anthropologist Robin Dunbar (1992), who has compiled evidence that the human brain can only form close bonds with an average of 150 people at any one time. Bernard and Killworth later suggested a number closer to 300, but regardless of the exact number it is far less than the number of my connections. I personally have 5x as many connections, and know others have 10x the connections I have.   Therefore, what do we do with people we are connected to on social media? Do these extended connections serve some other purpose? This revolution in connectivity is not only connecting more people together, but also enabling exponential expansion in the knowledge about those connections and potential connections. Never before could a person know so much about so many. However, is there a tangible benefit to our ever-expanding networks of people?

Certainly many of us collect connections, because they are friends from our tangible lives who we interact with in everyday life, and we wish to keep in touch with them in our virtual networks.  There are also online friends who “might” become everyday contacts and acquaintances, so why offend anyone.  There are good reasons to keep virtual friends “friends.” The concept goes back to Alexis de Tocqueville about the value of social capital, which means that there is a benefit to having friends in high places. But what social media has seemed to do is to break some of these traditional barriers in the “real” world (geography, economic status, chance, etc.), and create new opportunities for everyone to be a specialist. What may turn out to be the most critical social skill is the ability or willingness to ask for help and get to yes with all those specialists that you are now connected to and others may not have noticed. There is just so much depth in information today that we need experts of every sort, and we need to effectively interact with them. That sounds like the start of a business plan to me.

What is happening today is that this explosion of connections is opening new markets and new opportunities. They are helping us to think about and consider what is possible. One of the ways we learn is by watching others and then experimenting with those ideas in ways that others haven’t thought of yet. Reinforcing the cycle, the awareness that others are watching us drives our creative flow and encourages us to take risk, and frankly we must take risks. We are experts of our own domain. Others can and will depend on our expertise. We must be confident and focused enough in efforts to be correct in our assessments. We must leverage our connections and take advantage of the expertise of others. It is our connections that will tell us where our creative energies will be best-spent. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” said Thomas Edison. We need to get our hands dirty and experiment.

Today, our daydreams have a path for implementation. Experts are emerging from every nook and cranny in our communities, and they are bringing better choices and novel ways of thinking. The only thing we can say for sure is that we are not going back to the telephone and snail mail.