My Experiments with Introductions

Introductions are how unsociable introverts do social capital. Community building is for extroverts. But introductions I find stimulating. Doing them and getting them. This is probably a direct consequence of the type of social interaction I myself prefer. My comfort zone is 1:1, and an introduction is a 3-way that is designed to switch to a 2-way in short order, allowing the introducer to gracefully withdraw once the introducees start talking. As groups get larger than two, my stamina for dealing with them starts to plummet, and around 12, I basically give up (I don’t count speaking/presentation gigs; those feel more like performance than socializing to me).

I am pretty good at introductions. I’ve helped a few people get jobs, and helped one entrepreneur raise money. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a half-dozen very productive relationships that I have catalyzed. I think my instincts around when I should introduce X to Y are pretty good: 2 out of 3 times that I do an introduction, at the very least an interesting conversation tends to start. Since I’ve been getting involved in a lot of introductions lately, I thought I’d share some thoughts based on my experiments with introductions.

Weak-Link Hubs vs. Strong-Link Hubs

Introductions are the atomic unit of social interaction. They are central to the creation and destruction of communities, but aren’t themselves a feature of communities. Rather they drive the creative destruction process within the universe of communities, as Romeo and Juliet illustrates particularly well. Introductions are constantly rewiring the social graph, causing old communities to collapse and new ones to cohere.

To understand how introductions work, you have to understand a subtle point: stereotypical extroverted community types are actually pretty bad at introductions, except for one special variety: introducing a newcomer into an existing group, as a gatekeeper.  Stereotypical host/hostess community types are great at helping existing communities grow stronger and endure. Their social behaviors are therefore in direct conflict with uncensored introduction activity, which causes social creative destruction to intensify. I call the stereotypical community types strong-link social hubs. They know everybody in a given local (physical or virtual) community.  They are a friend, mentor or mentee to every individual within that community. They are the ultimate insiders. When  a strong-link social hub makes an introduction, it is usually quick and superficial, “I am sure you two will find that you have a lot in common, you’re both engineers!” Or the half-joking “everybody this is X; X this everybody, ha ha!” Enough to sustain party conversations, but usually not enough to catalyze relationships except by accident.

The real hubs of introduction activity on the social graph though, are what I call weak-link hubs. It is both a personality type and a structural position in the social graph. It is easiest for me to explain what this means via a personal anecdote.

When I was a kid in high school, I resisted being sucked into any particular group.For their part, the 2-3 major groups in my class saw me as a puzzle: I was not “one of us” or “one of them.” Neither was I one of the social outcasts. I did 1:1 friendships or hung out occasionally as a guest in groups, but I rarely joined in group activities.

One day, I remarked to a friend, “I guess I am equally inside all the groups.” His retort: “No, you are equally outside all the groups.” I realized that not only was he right, that was pretty much my identity. It hardened into a sort of reactionary tendency towards self-exile (one of my nicknames in college was “hermit”) that has stayed with me. Whenever I find myself getting sucked too deeply into any group, I automatically start withdrawing to the edge. Physically, if the group is in a room.

That is what I mean by weak-link hubs being both a personality type and a structural position. You have to have the personality that makes you retreat from centers and you have to have centers around you to retreat from. This retreat is an interesting dynamic. You cannot really be attracted to the edge around a single center, since that is a diffuse place. But if you are retreating simultaneously from multiple centers, you will find yourself a position in the illegible and chaotic intersection lands. Why illegible? Try drawing a random set of overlapping circles and making sense of the pattern of intersections. Here’s an example:

This “retreating from all nearby centers” is not exactly the personality description of a great social hub. So why is it a great position for introduction-making? It’s the same reason Switzerland is a great place for international negotiations: neutrality and small size anchoring credibility, but with sufficient actual clout to enforce good behavior. If you are big or powerful, you have an agenda. If you are from the center of a community, you have an agenda.  Another great example is the Bocchicchio family in The Godfather: not big enough to be one of the Five Families, but bloody-minded enough to effectively play intermediary in negotiations by offering themselves up as hostages.

Edge Blogging and the Introduction Scaling Problem

This post actually grew out of a problem I haven’t yet solved. My instincts around introductions aren’t serving me well these days. Over the last few months, the number of potential connection opportunities that go above my threshold triggers has been escalating. Two years ago, I’d spot one potential connection every few months and do an introduction.  Now I spot one or two a week, and it’s accelerating. I am getting the strange feeling that I might turn into one of those cartoon characters at a switchboard who starts out all calm and in control and is reduced to crazed scrambling. In case it isn’t obvious, the growth of ribbonfarm is the driver that is creating this scaling problem.

The answer is obvious for extroverts: create a community and start dealing with people in one-to-many and many-to-many ways in group contexts. This allows you to simply create a social field around yourself where people can connect without overt catalysis from you. The cost is that you must turn yourself into a human social object. You must become a new center. You will no longer be in the illegible intersection lands where creativity and originality live. Call me selfish, but that’s the big reason I don’t like the idea that readers frequently propose: formal ribbonfarm meetups or an online “ribbonfarm community.”

The anatomy of the problem is simple. Blogging is often an edge role. If you see a blog that sprawls untidily across multiple domains rather than staying within a tidy niche, chances are you are reading an edge blog. They tend to be small and slow-growth, with weird numbers in their traffic anatomy.

The social graph of an edge blogger is very different from the social graphs of both celebrities and regular people without much public visibility.  Regular people have many active strong links and many more weak links that used to be strong links (old classmates, colleagues from former jobs and the like). For regular people weak links are usually either strong links weakened by time or intrinsically weak links catalyzed by a short sequence of strong links (like a friend-of-a-friend or an in-law). In both cases, the weak links of regular people tend to be quiescent.

Celebrities on the other hand have a huge number of active weak links, but they only go one way: a lot of people know Obama but Obama doesn’t know 99.9999% of them.  Even if you count only those who have shaken hands with Obama, the asymmetry is still massive. Center bloggers are effectively celebrities. In fact they often are celebrities who have taken to blogging, like Seth Godin.

Edge bloggers though are an odd species. They are perhaps most like professional headhunters, used car salesmen or other types of people who regularly come into weak two-way contact with total strangers. Unlike those rather transactional roles though, bloggers do a whole lot of weak social rather than financial transactions with a lot of total strangers. Many of you (I’ve lost count) have ongoing email conversations with me, usually about a specific theme that I’ve blogged about or mentioned somewhere online (container shipping, martial arts, organizational decay and s/w design are some of the themes). The intensity ranges from several times a week to once every couple of months (for the infrequent ones, I usually have to do an inbox search to remember who the person is). With some correspondents, I have periodic bursts of activity. With a small handful of people, thanks to phone or face-to-face meetings, I have made the jump to actual friendship.

Edge bloggers are natural weak link hubs. We have vastly more active two-way weak link relationships going on than regular people or celebrities (or center bloggers). These are not forgotten classmates or friends-of-friends who can be called upon when you are job-hunting. Nor are they one-way-recognition handshakes.

I got a visceral sense of what it means to be a weak-link hub when I compared my LinkedIn graph visualization to that of a couple of “regular people” friends. Though my friends had comparable numbers of contacts, most of their contacts fell into very obvious small-world categories, like workplace, school, customers or industry associations. My social graph on the other hand, has a huge bucket that I could only label “miscellaneous.” Many are from ribbonfarm, but I suppose my “weak link hub” style carries over to regular life as well. For instance, I have a lot more random connections to people in widely separated parts of Xerox, my former employer, compared to most of my former coworkers.

Keeping Edges Edgy

Make no mistake, this is fun for me and hugely valuable. But I have to admit, it takes a lot of time to keep up a whole bunch of 1:1 email relationships, and it is getting steadily harder. So far, my clean-inbox practices have helped me keep up, but there has some of the inevitable increase in response time and sometimes decrease in my response quality.

The big temptation is of course to ignore my personality and preferences and allow ribbonfarm to become a “center.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing. You trade off continued creativity and vitality for deeper collaborative cultivation of established value. I don’t like doing that much. I get distracted too quickly. My brain is not built for depth in that sense, even around things I trigger, like the Gervais Principle memeplex.

The conundrum is that I don’t think raising the threshold for “potential connection quality” is the right answer. That’s the wrong filter variable for scaling. I am not sure what the right one is, but I won’t attempt to jump to synthesis. So far, I’ve simply been letting a steadily-increasing fraction of introduction opportunities simply go by. Mostly I try to avoid making introductions to people who are already oversubscribed.

Though I don’t have a theory, I do have one heuristic that serves me well though: “closer potential direct connection.” If I know A and B, and I sense that A and B would have a more fertile relationship with each other than either has with me, I make the connection and exit. It is the opposite logic of marketplaces whose organizers are afraid of disintermediation. To me being an intermediary in the social sense is mostly costs and little benefit.

But that one heuristic isn’t enough. I have experimenting with introductions in different ways lately, and learning new ideas and techniques.

Here’s one new idea I’ve learned. To keep edges edgy, and prevent them from becoming centers, you need feedback signals. One I look for is symmetry. “Introducer” types tend to be “introducees” equally often.  If the ratio changes, I get worried.

As an illustration of the symmetry of this process of mutual cross-catalysis among sociopath weak-link hubs, consider this, while I was conducting my experiments with introductions, others have been introducing me to their friends. Hang Zhang of Bumblebee Labs introduced me to Tristan Harris, CEO of Apture and Seb Paquet formally introduced me to Daniel Lemire (who I knew indirectly through comments on each other’s blogs, before but had never directly emailed/interacted with).

We are all lab rats running in each others mazes. I like that thought.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. The center of one circle can still fall in the illegible intersection land of other circles. This is a great reason to travel, for example: it allows you to return to the edge of another circle. Similarly, going to a small meetup around one of your minor interests can place you on the edge of more circles.

    One attribute to consider is the principle of gravity between these circles. If you are the center of a small enough circle, you can still live on the illegible edge of other circles. If, however, your circle is big enough, the gravitational pull from your circle prevents you from living on the edge of other circles. Seth Godin, for example, probably cannot live on the edge of many circles, because his online presence is prominent enough to prevent this.

  2. Spot on. I felt like I was reading a description of my own social interactions. Although I have oscillated between being at the center of a small circle and being on the edge of many circles. mabe the two are compatible, as Steven suggests above.

  3. Very interesting. I can definitely find myself in your description of ‘edge blogger’ and I find that I made a lot of decisions similar to the pattern you’re describing in your post. I hate being the center as well, although I kind of was at some point in the past. I prefer to be the observer on the side, partaking enough to experience events but never being the center of attention. Because I have been moving around a lot and have been dealing with groups of people coming and going all the time, I attributed my out-of-center-ness partly (if not mostly) to my unstable living/working situation. I always wondered if I might have had a stable circle of my own if I had lead a more stable life, or if I would have turned out the same.

  4. Excellent posting! I have a simple suggestion: turn back the clock several centuries and join Samuel Johnson in a London coffee house. You were really born far too late.

    However, since you are, you might as well make the best of it, and turn your skills to some present problems – such a software development, an intensely social activity. What you are talking about is directly applicable there.

  5. This post prompted me to look back through my email history and, as far as I can determined, I’ve made 120 introductions over the course of the last 9 months or approximately an introduction every 2 days on average.

    In the past month alone, I’ve made 43 introductions so the pace is only accelerating. You need to buckle up, you haven’t even started down the accelerating slope yet…

  6. Looking back, it was a riskier and more difficult endeavor to break group boundaries. It was met with frostiness, suspicion or sometimes hostility. Over time, I find it easier and feel that others pick up signals so they kind of expect it and respect it.

    Some take a cautious approach to delay or avoid becoming part of a group but in my case (and, I suspect, yours) one is quite comfortable opening up quickly with certain people but averse to labels or “full membership” commitments arising as side-effects of this.

    Not having been a part of any group is different from consciously choosing to stay away from the center(s) of groups that one has been/is a part of.

  7. Venkat,
    I suspect you answer to the community question lies in some formulation of the crucible described in your previous post (https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/07/21/the-crucible-effect-and-the-scarcity-of-collective-attention/).

    Such a group would naturally be very similar to the image of overlapping circles you reference in this post. The “core” members would have match overlap but if they were all of a similarly independent mindset then they would remain distinct circles, never congealing into one uniform circle.

    In order to maintain that individual independence the community should be a secondary project for all of them. Once the community becomes your primary project you would naturally move to the middle, but if each member of the crucible had other primary projects then they would maintain the incentive to keep their unique perspective distinct from any groupthink.

    I could imagine this working much like a Twitter hashtag for long form communication. No barriers to entry, therefore no one able dictate the scope of the conversation, but any user able to ignore any other user. The “core members” would be fluid, simply understood as being such by mutual consent and recognition.

  8. This snippet from William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” seems to me to be connected to the circles and edges we are discussing here.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  9. Venkat, you make a rubbish priest.

    That thing about disintermediation is really good, I’ve noticed it loads of times, where you first start talking to someone about things another person said, and before you know it your basically just bouncing their ideas and criticisms back from one to the other while adding very little in between. You’re basically becoming an anonymising switchboard. There can be advantages there though, I know someone who found it very entertaining doing exactly this with a particular set of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses!

    Have you considered following the pattern of development of the switchboard, and using tags and a list of people to actually automate introductions? It would be very weird to start off with, but if you can work out points of commonality and also patterns of introduction, then you can have automatic cheat sheets for yourself on the two people before you do it, to minimise head work per introduction. You might learn some pretty interesting things about social topography and dynamics from developing the system too.

    I’d dispute the “strength” distinction a bit, because I think this is a case where it shows one weakness of that way of categorising social structures: In social systems you can say that there are multi-layered/redundant links, usually local and strong, where you interact on many levels in different forms, and you can have single strand links, usually remote and weak, where you have few points of commonality.

    But single links can be strong if they are made robust by flexibility and storage. In English, you can keep an effective correspondence with someone if you keep their emails, and you can contact them wherever they are. The usual human problems of a weak link; the tendency to loose your model of them over time, and to physically loose them in space (!), can be mitigated, allowing the productive potential of the link to expand, and be ridiculously strong. You can see this form of relationship appearing after the invention of semi-reliable multi-purpose post in the 17th century-ish, but only really getting sorted now, with our almost total ability to delocalise communication and store the full conversation log.

    But there’s more to it than that, and that criticism falls down right on the interesting point of your post; the idea of group centres, closely linked in my mind to patterns of identity and work.

  10. It seems to me that the weak-link hub is the catalyst of true progress in society. That seems to make the weak-link hub the real, unrecognized power broker, as opposed to the strong-link hub, who is essentially the maintainer of the staus quo. But what do I know?

  11. So is Bernard Marx in Brave New World a weak link? He might be. He introduced John the Savage to Helmholtz Watson, and Lenina Crowne to John the Savage. However, he appears not to like being a weak link, and is always trying to fit in!