I've been thinking about scale recently. Partly in reaction to the fact that as my network on twitter has grown, I've become increasingly aware of its level of sophistication. When it started out, it mostly consisted of the kind of people I interacted with already on a regular basis. And those people are still at the core – my friends, and the kind of people whom I meet up with in the physical world. As it's grown, this core has become surrounded by a larger number of people with whom I have looser association and interact with more occasionally, and an even larger number of people who I've never met, but to whom I am connected in the virtual world most likely because I think they might be interesting or vica versa but with whom I interact even more infrequently (what James Governor called Asymmetric Follow).
These multiple degrees of connection are fluid and ever changing. Frequency of interaction can change, loose associations become strong, strong ones become looser. But here's the thing – whilst it's probably inevitable that I will follow more people (I'm a believer in the value of connection and to be honest, often too curious to stop myself), the number of people who I meaningfully interact with will, I suspect, remain about the same.
Seems like I'm not alone. Dunbar's number famously put a theoretical cognitive limit (at around150) on the number of people with whom one can "maintain stable social relationships". And in most types of social and organisational structures, size matters. Put simply, it makes a difference when everybody knows everybody else. In a recent Economist interview, Facebook's in-house sociologist Dr Cameron Marlow revealed that the average number of friends in a Facebook group, at 120, is remarkably consistent with Dunbar's number. And interestingly, while many people have hundreds friends on Facebook, the number of people who they actively interact and communicate with was remarkably small. The more regular the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group. In other words, networks have enable us to manage all our relationships better and we have undoubtedly become better at managing looser associations, but they have not increased the size of the more intimate of human social groups, or what you might call our 'social core'.
This means a number of interesting things. The search for the killer business model for social networks kind of misses the point – that there is unlikely to be one single answer. I'm reminded of that Clay Shirky quote:
"We're not going from a world of Business Model A to one of Business Model B, we're going from Business Model A to Business Models A to Z".
Clay's point is about the need for a multiplicity of business models. Social is human. Humans are complex. Social is complex. Human relations are all about degrees. Degrees of engagement, degrees of participation. The same is true of any community (look at Forrester's ladder of participation). So it is more useful to think about the models we adopt and the measures we apply to them as also being multi-layered, and inter-relational.
So does social media scale? Yes, but not in the way we traditionally think about acheiving scale. One of the most interesting dynamics in marketing today is that between art and the algorithm. The currency of the former is ideas. Great ideas which spread across people and communities. The currency of the latter is data. Ever-increasingly sophisticated techniques for targeting and relevance. One starts small, and can lead to scale. The other starts big, and becomes small. The mistake in applying 'big' broadcast thinking to networks is that we get stuck in the 'big', and don't think small enough.