In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson wrote a really interesting story called "I'm So Totally, Digitally Close To You", which explores the impact that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have on the number and quality of relationships that humans can possibly manage.
Thompson cites research by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who studied social bonding in humans and apes and came to the conclusion that both species can handle a finite number of relationships: for apes, the number was 55; for humans, it was 150. Thompson wondered if Facebook and Twitter could actually increase the so-called "Dunbar number" (for humans, not apes!). Take a casual look at any young person's Facebook page and the answer is obvious. Or is it?
Thompson suggests that the social networking sites really don't increase the number of people with whom we're authentically intimate, although they may make those relationships richer. The real impact of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, he says, is that they vastly increase our number of "weak ties" — casual acquaintances, friends of friends, people we meet at business events, etc. — and that, moreover, it's these weak ties that are more effective in helping us solve problems (in my case, like finding a source for a story, teaching my Border Collie how to catch a Frisbee, or giving me a heads up on the new Sarah Palin action figure).
So I'm wondering how many people out there have found that the contacts they've made on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn, have helped solve business problems. Have you leveraged these sites to help you grow your business, or are they simply entertaining distractions?
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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