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.