How many friends do you have?

Or should I ask, rather, “How many ‘friends’ do you have?”

Any newcomer to the world of online social networking, especially anyone of the digital immigrant generations, could be forgiven for becoming confused about the terminology of “friends” and – the new verb courtesy of the social networking phenomenon – “friending”.

Sometimes I think that everything’s been said about the phenomenon of having “friends” in online networks being different from what we think of as having friends in the offline world. The short story is this: becoming a “friend” on a social network is a much looser concept than people think of outside such networks.

I resisted that idea for a while. I took the view that the people I accepted or invited as “friends” online would be rather like my offline friends. But my thinking on the subject has changed – hopefully evolved – over the past few years and I now have a more flexible approach.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, inviting someone to be a “friend” on Facebook or bebo or some other social network is a less socially or morally fraught deed than doing so in the offline world. Actually, although I get notified every day of online “friend” requests, I can’t recall the last time anyone in the offline world asking me to be their friend.

But what do we really mean by a “friend” online? And how many “real” friends do people have anyway?

At the Social Networking and EBusiness Conference Phils, held in Manila recently, Ian Stewart, now Asian Head of Friendster and previously at MTV, said that according to a survey done for MTV, the number of close friends young people have is 13, with 50 offline acquaintances and 44 online. I understand him to say on the video that these figures work also for those of us who are not in the young people category: I don’t know the basis for that observation, but I find it interesting.

Video by Buddy Gancenia, thanks to Janette Toral

Where does that leave the people who have thousands of “friends” on social networks? The networkers and super-connectors?

Last year’s Rapleaf study, as reported on Marketing Vox, via Marketing Charts, looked at connections made on a number of networks, including Bebo, Facebook, Friendster, Hi5, LiveJournal, MySpace, Flickr (note: LinkedIn, the professional business network, is not mentioned – nor is Twitter, which is a whole other story).

The report listed four categories of “networkers” and “connectors” on social networks:

  • Social Networkers (those with 1-100 friends) – about 80% of the sample set
  • Connectors (100-1,000 friends) – about 19%
  • Super Connectors (1,000-10,000 friends) – .66%
  • Uber Connectors (10,000+ friends) – .02%

For what it’s worth, women are more likely to be Super Connectors and men are more likely to be Uber Connectors. The report indicates that men go for numbers, women for “real” connection and relationship. That figures.

From a business point of view, it is important to work out what kind of network we want to build, and where, in relationt to our business strategy. For some groups, recruiters for instance, having very large networks seems generally a good idea. But if you were a recruiter working in a highly specialized field, building and maintaining very large networks might not be such a clever use of your time. And there might or might not be good business reasons for inviting any or all of your offline “real” friends into to that network.

I always say it’s a good idea, when registering for new networks, to resist the inclination to complete immediately those screens that offer to make it really easy to invite a whole bunch of your friends and family to your new network.

For every network we start or join we need to ask, who do I want to connect with or invite here and what’s the underlying rationale for those judgements.

Do you have an example of a social network that has worked really well for you from a business viewpoint? I hope you will share?

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).