On networking and connectedness

In 1976 Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme‘ as an afterthought in his book “The Selfish Gene“, a meme – he stipulated, is a unit of cultural knowledge that has the capacity (and propensity) to replicate itself. Other popular writers picked up the idea and ran with it.

We were introduced to the Idea-Virus concept, in the work of Richard Brodie (“Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme“), Seth Godin (“Unleashing the Ideavirus“, with Malcolm Gladwell), and Robert Aunger (“The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think“). Evan Louis Sheehan offered an evolutionary model of memes (“The Mocking Memes: A Basis for Automated Intelligence“) and Jay Conrad Levinson, who wrote DIY books on Guerrilla Marketing and who suggested “555 ways to earn extra money“, explored memes that support the creative drive (“Guerrilla Creativity: Make Your Message Irresistible with the Power of Memes“.)

The implied truth behind these books, and the concept of unit of knowledge, is that memes require people in order to replicate. More specifically, people need to be both connected and networked in order to generate and disseminate memes.

How many people do you know, that is, people who matter to you? “Matter” is a multi-layered concept: people may matter to you because they work on your team, or because they support the same football club, or because they are fun to be with, or because they share your spiritual journey or your religious belief or political convictions, or because they love travelling and camping or gardening and scrap-booking… there is an endless number of potential connections here.

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell started a small revolution (was it that small?) with his book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” where he studied (among other things) the phenomenon of networking. First, he says, we need a few people who feel passionate about an idea. These ‘few’, however, have unique skills that help them spread ideas around: Connectors, as he called them, know many people, they can pick a phone, write an e-mail, make an unplanned visit to the local barber, and people find themselves connected to like-minded strangers. The second group, called Mavens, are experts, they have the knowledge and the wherewithal to make complex processes see simple. Finally, the third group of people, the Salespeople, is able to make ideas Palatable globally. Salespeople make us believe that we want, even need, what they have to sell.

In a recently published book on networking (“The Connect Effect: Building Strong Personal, Professional, and Virtual Networks“) author Michael Dulworth takes Gladwell’s networking concept further. Networking is a development skill because you have access to others’ experience and knowledge. Dulworth observes three types of networks: personal (for example, your family, friends), professional (such as your work colleagues), and virtual (such as the Internet, social networks and online “life reality” environments.)

My favourite part of the book deals with one’s so-called personal brand. “Your personal brand is the sum total of the qualities people associate with you, good and bad. Your brand is primarily determined by how others see you and only partly determined by how you see yourself.” (p.64) Here, once again, modern views of networking and connectivity are directly aligned to the age-old African concept of UBUNTU (we only live through others.)  Dulworth’s principle reminds me of the way Google ascertains meaning — if 10,000,000 people choose you as the answer to their search for “the perfect human” – than you must be perfect! Meaning is defined by the masses. Intriguing.

American sociologist Mark Granovetter observed two types of interpersonal ties (connections) between people in a network – strong ties and weak ties. Ties get stronger, he said, as we invest more time, emotional intensity, intimacy (what we can tell only each other) and “reciprocal services” (you take my kids to school, I fill your car with petrol) in each other. So, you can have a stronger tie with your Boss then you have with your brother, who lives in Perth, Australia, and has little-to-no contact with you. In 1976, Granovetter published what became his most recognise work, a paper called “The Strength of Weak Ties.” (PDF.) In it, he argued powerfully that so-called ‘weak’ ties are, in fact, extremely meaningful in relationships.

Granovetter notes that important events and meaningful connections stem from so-called ‘weak ties’ – how can it be? His theory is fascinating – weak ties cause us to be more mobile, he said, try harder, strive to be clever, because we have no way to know what they think about us. Strong ties are known to us, as are their expectations from us. Weak ties are unknown, we therefore try harder, take less for granted. When this happens, we tend to stick to people who are similar to us, and so, we create ‘cohesion’ close by. This is the reason local human networks such strong sense of togetherness.

One statement is important in the context of the discussion here, on the importance of connectivity and networking. He says:” Those to whom one is closest are likely to have the greatest overlap in contact with those one already knows, so that the information to which they are privy is likely to be much the same as that which one already has” (pp. 1369-1373.) –the message is clear, weak ties are hugely important for us to acquire better, deeper knowledge of ourselves and others.

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