Social Network Science for Dummies

By Paul Teshima in Networking

Before we started Nudge, we did a lot of research on how social networks (both online and offline) work, to make sure that we were building something revolutionary for business professionals everywhere.  Here is a (greatly) simplified view of how this complex science works:

1. Your brain can only handle 150 friends at a time

Also known as “Dunbar’s number“, this was determined by Robin Dunbar, Oxford professor of anthropology and psychology.  He discovered it by first researching primates, then modern hunter-gatherer societies, and found that the human brain (based on size) can only manage 150 friendships at a time under optimal conditions.  Additionally there is roughly a “rule of three” both up and down from this number:

15: # of very close friends, you would confide in them in a time of need

50: # of close friends

150: # of friendships, you would invite them to a large party

500: # of acquaintances, you remember how you met

1,500: # of people you could put a name to a face

These groupings at the various levels of relationship strength form the basis for how you socialize in your day-to-day life.

language evolved as a “cheap” form of social grooming, so enabling the ancestral humans to maintain the cohesion of the unusually large groups”

– Robin Dunbar

2. Social networks are clusters of smaller groups

When you examine your social network, it is really comprised of several smaller groups of people.  Each group typically has people with shared experiences and ideas.  An important role in any social network is what is known as a “broker”.  A broker can bridge the gaps between two groups of people and transfer knowledge and skills.

A ton of research is currently being done on how social networks work. Ronald Burt, professor of sociology at the Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business, has lead the way with some great insights:

  1. The way networks have their effect is not by getting information from people, but rather by finding people who are interesting and who think differently from you
  2. A network in itself does not provide an advantage independent of the work and effort you put into it.  In other words, a great network full of influencers is not valuable unless you spend the time to nurture and add value back to the network.
  3. The no. 1 predictor of career success, is how open and large a network you act as a broker in.

Instead of better glasses, your network gives you better eyes”

– Ronald Burt

3. Your weak ties lead to the best opportunities

Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, the strength of weak ties was a theory proven by Mark Granovetter, Stanford professor.  He did experiments in job searching, and found that 84% of jobs found through a person’s network, were from weak ties, and only 16% from strong ones.

The theory makes intuitive sense, because if you spend all your time with your close friends, you only are exposed to similar skills, interests and therefore similar opportunities in life.  However if you spend time with weaker ties, you are exposed to new ideas, skills and opportunities – which often are the most beneficial to you in life.

“Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are.”

– Malcolm Gladwell

Paul Teshima
CEO and Co-founder