When I work with groups on their strategic use of social media I assure them, “size doesn’t matter” and they look at me funny. We have been told our whole lives that bigger is better. As it turns out, when it comes to building a community via social media and specifically when you amass a vague community with no clear definition i.e. followers/friends that isn’t always the case. I blogged about this a while back but a few recent studies I came across and a short conversation on twitter led me back to the research.
At this point I would like to remind everyone of a very technical term I use quite often when talking about what strategies to use regarding Social Media engagement, “it depends”. It depends on your goals and objectives and for as much as we might want to create a cookie cutter process for the strategic and tactical use of social media, what I find to be the case with every organization I work with is, their efforts don’t come close to mirroring any other organization’s use. (note to self, need to blog about the reasons why I think they are so different)
This leads me back to size. Too many folks focus on and talk about the size of their twitter followers. It’s for obvious reasons:
- It’s an easy metric to measure
- We start out on Twitter for the sole purpose of finding people to follow in the hopes they will find us
- Every added follower is… something, not sure what but we get warm fuzzies when we get that update email
- Even “Twitter graders” give us kudos for the number of followers. Twitter “elite” strive to hit the one million mark.
But I go back to the question of goals and objectives. Specifically how does the size of your community support them? Are you selling a book, just released a movie – maybe size does matter but I would argue these folks are most likely using twitter as an rss feed for one-way or at best two-way asymmetrical communication. Sure, they might “engage their followers” but what about their community which we all talk about being so valuable in social media.
If we look at our community as a true community, one of engagement and collaboration and created for a purpose (go way back to the days of the Mayberry analogy) then we find smaller might actually be better. But, again, it depends on so many variables. How are you defined in this community? How are others defined in this community? Are you the leader (hint, you might think you are but…) is it a hierarchical community? And so on. All critical questions which need to be asked as you set the stage for your tactical use of any community based social media tactic.
Still shaking your head and thinking to yourself, “strong words Bill but prove it.” Here ya go -
Research (link provided to original source)
Effects of spatial distribution and information transmission over cooperation dynamics – “Our results show that spatial structures affect the cooperation dynamics under horizontal information transmission and in some structures, particularly Small World Networks, cooperation is more sensible to information transmission.”
Social Networks and Collective Action – “The analysis finds that some metrics for networks’ influence—size, the prevalence of weak ties, the presence of elites—have a more complex interaction with network structure and individual motivations than has been previously acknowledged. For example, in some contexts additional network ties decrease participation. This presents the potential for selection bias in empirical studies. The model offers a fuller characterization of the role of network structure and predicts expected levels of participation across network types and distributions of motivations as a function of network size, weak and strong ties, and elite influence.”
Learning to Cooperate: Learning Networks and The Problem of Altruism – “Learning networks determine the spread of successful strategies; a larger,more connected population with more overlapping clusters of relationships averages72% mutual cooperation in our simulation, a 12 percentage point gain over the 60% averaged by the smallest, least connected, least clustered population. Larger populations and more contacts both increase the chance of learning from successful retaliatory strategies and hence increase the growth of retaliatory strategies whenever selection favors cooperation. Thus larger populations with more developed learning relationships should on average exhibit higher levels of cooperation. This would suggest that cooperation across longstanding cleavages would develop more rapidly in larger interactive legislatures, larger more established policy arenas, and larger integrated immigrant communities—in the latter case, however, analytic results for finite populations suggest that at some point larger populations may impede the evolution of cooperation unless interactions are restricted into structured game networks.”
A few points:
To clarify some of the research above, there are cases when the size of the community is beneficial but very specific variables need to be considered and implemented. I also find it interesting but self explanatory that most studies which involve or can be related to social media are geared toward Biology, Political Science, Anthropology, Mathematics, Psychology, etc. What I find interesting about this is, in a social media world (PR/Mass Comm/marketing) where we preach collaboration, seldom do we venture outside our comfort zone regarding research. Finally, there is one other study I am tying again to find. It is recent, within the last two months and from Europe and spoke specifically to mass communication and communities. It was dead and if I can find it I will add it to this post.
So what now?
No reason to start over but do ask yourself a few questions:
- Why am I tweeting? What larger goal or objective does it support?
- If I build a community, what kind of responsibility do I have to this community?
- When you visualize your community what does it look like?
- Now look at your followers and those you follow – what do you see?
- Insert a few dozen other questions which should be asked when building a community.
I can tell you what I am doing. For experimental reasons I am starting over from square one. Following no one and no one following me. I am taking into consideration so much more than when I first started tweeting. You won’t likely find me, especially if you are looking for folks who are also focused on a very small niche. I will continue to use Bill Handy for a number of reasons but I am also changing how I use this tool. If I want a community then I need to truly build it so, based on the research above, it can be successful.