Friday, December 19, 2008

lazy communication: chronicles of our social graphs

I've been thinking about social graphs... and how egocentric they are.

There's a classroom experiment where students are asked to write the letter E on their forehead. Some people orient the E towards themselves; others think more empathetically and draw an E that's readily perceived by others. When facing themselves, it's an example of an egocentric bias.

Point is, being egocentric isn't necessarily about being selfish or about social desirability, it's a tendency to see things in a limited way, from your perspective only. Like kids who can't yet put themselves in others' shoes.
I think we're egocentric in our communication patterns. Even though we're not charged for long-distance-- calls or emails-- we tend to talk to people really nearby. Think about the ever-enduring silos in organizations. HBS researchers studied >100M emails and >60M calendar entries from +30k employees at a complex corporation in 2006:
"Our analysis indicates that two people who are in the same SBU, function, and office interact about 1,000 times more frequently than two people at the company who are in different business units, functions, and offices, but are otherwise similar."
We communicate with people who are within an arm's reach. This reminds me of the classic 1950's study of friendship in MIT housing leading to the adage (?) that proximity is the biggest predictor of friendship. At year's end, people reported being better friends with people who lived next door to them; people who lived near staircases reported being better friends with people on the second floor!

Are we communicatively lazy? How immersed are we in our full social graphs? Seems likely that we communicate in pretty isolated networks, not dispersed across our entire graph.

Consider Umair Haque's statement on how to be a 21st Century capitalist:
"Yesterday's businesses were built on cash, factories, and IP - financial, physical, and intellectual capital. Next-generation businesses are built, instead, on human, social, natural, and cultural capital - to name just a few."

If tomorrow's business is really going to be built on social capital, we need to figure out how to span our networks.


Anonymous said...

Well, isn't this a cool little comment widget. Oh wait...I had a point:

How do we know that people don't interact more with people they shared a context with? I'm part of a global network of companies, and everyone's email address is available to me via auto-complete in Outlook. And yet, I email the people in my pod way more frequently. But, that's because we are all working on tasks together. We share that context, which gives us the reason to interact.

Why should I interact with people on the other side of the globe? I suppose one of the things we need to do, if we're going to stretch out to The Wide Fringe (as opposed to Long Tail) of our social graph is simply a reason, a shared experience or a common deadline.

Anonymous said...

I have a vision of the plate twirling act at a circus. Certainly some people prefer to concentrate on keeping one or two plates going while others might desire to keep a row of a dozen spinning at the same time. I think the trick might be how to get people thinking about the system, even if that's not their natural inclination.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Gary - I'm pretty excited about the JS-Kit comments too.

1. How do we know? I think experience/ intuition tells us that context is another boundary that clearly structures communication. The authors of the study I reference were exploring 3 different types: organizational, spatial, and social. Surely purpose spurs collaboration...

2. So why tap the social capital on the wide fringe? You're right, maybe there's an evolutionary reason underlying close-radius communication and friendship. But why perpetuate silos and eliminate 'inter-disciplinary' collaboration? The hypothesis would be that more (and diverse) contributions will enhance the end-result.

Your example is difficult though because you're thinking in terms of why to "email" someone on the fringe. I would say, in line with Pete's comment above, that you should think about the system. In other words, be more open in your communication to elaborate on what your values are or context is to identify unknown others who share them and can potentially impact the result.

May I credit you with the apropos Wide Fringe terminology?

Anonymous said...

Of course you can credit me! As mentioned behind-the-blog communication, I may explore that idea a bit more.

Anonymous said...

Kate I think time is another major limiting factor. Even when there's a desire to connect to the whole wide world, there is only so much time. The other limiters are language for example or origin and roots. An Armenian will tend to be closer with an Armenian down the hall rather than a non-Armenian next door. An Armenian who only speaks Armenian is limited greatly as there aren't so many of us. I like your blog and will add to my list of bookmarked sites to read! Keep up the nice articles - food for thought.

Anonymous said...

yes, time is a critical filter, and I think we will see a shift in priorities for how we spend our time as a result. A desire to connect, as you call it-- or thinking less egocentrically about our connections, is about actively creating communications and listening too. It's about the sheer ability to do either when desired, and encouraging others to as well. yes, it will take time to nurture those connections, but every communication becomes relevant, and valuable for each party. Language is a proxy for all sorts of affinities or contexts, as Gary calls them above-- they're the plates in Pete's visual, also above- which perhaps have overlapping Venn-like areas. Glad to hear you'll be back- thank you.