How Social Networks Are Making It Harder To Maintain Relationships

I’ve had the good fortune to work for and spend time with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, one of the leading thinkers on the topic of relationship management.  LinkedIn itself is very much a reflection of Reid’s philosophy: Relationships Matter. In his book, The Start-Up of You, and in recent blog posts, Reid hammers home the point that the relationship networks you build and maintain play a massive role in how you manage your career and interact with customers in the new world of work.

I couldn’t agree with him more, and I’d argue that while the social networks have made it incredibly easy to build relationship networks, they’ve arguably made it harder to maintain relationships, and the maintenance part is the piece that makes all the difference.  Most of us know that the key to maintaining relationships is to invest in them when you don’t need them, so that they’re active when you do; no one likes being the “fair weather friend” who only reaches out when they need something, and no one likes getting the call from that person.

A few considerations:

Using social networks fools us into believing we’re maintaining relationships

We’re all guilty of it: because we’re connected with someone on a social network, we often make the false assumption that we have a good relationship with that person, despite the fact that we’ve often made little or no investment in that relationship.  We haven’t proactively offered to help. We haven’t checked in to hear first-hand how they’re doing. We haven’t personally congratulated them on something special.  In many cases, it’s been years since any one-to-one communication took place. We feel like we “know” that person, because we see content they’ve shared in a broadcast fashion, but all too often we’ve done very little in a very long time to strengthen the uniqueness of our own relationship with that person.

Look through your various networks and ask yourself: when was the last time I reached out to that person? It’s important exercise, though it’s complicated by the next point.

Our relationships are now highly fragmented across multiple networks

Back in 2007 and 2008, there was a great deal of talk about the inevitability of social network consolidation. The thinking was that people wouldn’t tolerate having to maintain multiple networks on multiple platforms, and there would be an eventual winner – a single platform where we’d house all of our personal and professional relationships. I never believed that. For most people, their work life and personal life are two different worlds and there’s satisfaction in keeping separation between the two. And now that the major social networks have firmly planted themselves in people’s lives, I can’t see consolidation happening at all.

But therein lies the problem.  Our relationships and interactions now span across LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare, Instagram, Path, Skype, Google+, Text Msgs, Gmail, Forums, and in the case of the enterprise, apps like Chatter and Yammer.  And we’ll likely see and participate in even more networks in the future.  Keeping up with all of the interactions we’ve had with a single person across all of these experiences now requires opening 7 or 8 tabs in a browser and running multiple applications just to stay on top of it all, with no real consolidated view of all of the interactions we’ve had with a single person.

The good news is that the bulk of our relationships and interactions are now being stored in the cloud where we can easily get to them, though we’re not necessarily getting the value we should be getting from that data, which leads to the next point.

Social Networks Are Creating A Big Data Problem for Consumers

Most references to Big Data focus on the enterprise: tremendous amounts of data being created and stored, and businesses are unable to fully leverage that data.  But that problem exists for all of the “interaction data” we’re creating across all of the aforementioned social platforms: we’re primarily communicating through digital channels, and we’re entering a lot of data about ourselves and what we’re doing into social networks and broadcasting that information to others. But in return, all we’re getting back is content that others are broadcasting at us, which often is completely disconnected from what we’ve entered.  We’re not getting much in the way of “recommendations” for what we should do based on the data we’re sharing.

Now contrast that with some of the web’s most successful businesses: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, eBay, LinkedIn, Pandora. What do they all have in common? You share data, and they use algorithms that crunch that data and spit back recommendations. Google recommends links you should follow based on your query. LinkedIn recommends jobs you may be interested in or people you may know based on your profile.  Amazon recommends books you should read based on what you’ve read before and what others like you have read, and Netflix and Pandora do the same thing for movies and music respectively.

But we’re not getting anything like that when it comes to relationships, despite the fact that we’re supplying massive amounts of data about our relationships into myriad systems. Imagine if we had a single dashboard with content like this:

  • You should drop Mike a note; the last time you interacted with him was 4 months ago on Facebook messenger
  • Lisa just connected with 10 people on LinkedIn; that might mean she’s looking for a new job, you should drop her a line and see if you can help her out
  • This time last year you checked into Market Grill with Ben – you should get another lunch scheduled.
  • You haven’t talked to Michelle in a long time; she’s been very active on Twitter lately, you should DM her there

The idea would be that algorithms would scan your entire array of social networks and provide recommendations for how you should make relationship investments today that could bear fruit tomorrow.

Mint for Relationships

I love Mint. For better or worse, I’ve got a number of accounts at various financial institutions, and Mint lets me bring all of them together to get a unified view of my finances and then provides some useful recommendations based on what it sees across those accounts.  Wouldn’t it be great to have something like that for relationships?

In a way, that’s what Nimble is aiming to do.  Created by Jon Ferrara, the founder and creator of GoldMine, Nimble is a “Social CRM” application that lets you connect your contacts, your calendar, and your major social network accounts and unifies all of your interactions with people all in one place.  So now I can go to my friend Mike Henry’s contact record and, in one view, see all of the interactions he and I have had across Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Foursquare, and I can see everything he’s posting and sharing on the major social networks.

That helps with the fragmentation problem, but Nimble is also beginning to give “suggestions” about following up with someone based on a meeting we had yesterday, or suggests I follow people on Twitter who recently followed me. They have a lot more planned for the service, but I’ve found that it’s already been a huge help in keeping tabs on all of my interactions.

Whether you use an application like Nimble or simply go about managing your relationships manually across multiple points, just remember to take the time to nurture them when you don’t need them to make sure they’re in good shape when and if you do, and keep in mind that while the social networks are making it easier to create relationships, it’s up to you to maintain them.

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