Why size isn’t everything – at least for communities…

I made a note to respond to a recent post by David Cushman, in which he talks about the value formula applied to cities by a theoretical physicist, and applies it to social networks and particularly Google +.

The money quote is:

“…it can be understood by a single magic number: 1.15. Each time the population of a city increases by 100 per cent (in other words doubles) the social and economic factors scale up by 115 per cent.
“So, if you compare a city with a population of one million people to a city of two million, then instead of the larger city having twice as many restaurants, concert halls, libraries and schools, you find instead an extra 15 per cent on top of what you’d expect. Even salaries are affected by this curious ratio…”
And David then applies the same thinking to social networks, to prove that overall size is more important than growth rate in creating overall value. Which isn’t wrong exactly, but it did leave me feeling uneasy, and trying to work out why I felt the need to disagree.
And here’s why – it’s about personal perspective. If you’re a social network or community owner, then the application of the value theory makes sense, and from an overall perspective, then the rise tide lifts all your individual ships up.
But from the perspective of an individual member of that community, the value you get isn’t just tied to the economic levels of the overall group, or the overall utility of the network as laid out in Reed’s Law.

Why size doesn’t matter for the individual

So here’s why overall size isn’t the biggest factor in the value of a community or social network – a city may have an overall rise in economic growth and communal resources in line with the overall size, but there are still economic and status differences between individuals. And these tend to be centred around particular areas and neighbourhoods.

plus size skinny jeans

Photo by arimoore on Flickr (CC Licence)

And it’s the rise or fall of my neighbourhood which impacts me most – whether that’s house prices, new community services etc. Even then, my own standard of living may not rise or fall in line with everyone else .

So the value I get from an online community is normally made greater by an increase in connections, in terms of awareness of opportunities. And most social networks have allowed us to have huge numbers of loose connections beyond the magic Dunbar Number of the number of people we can generally manage to have stable social relationships with (between 100 and 230).

But I think that the size approach Dave has chosen is purely looking at the numbers of opportunities, the quantity of information, and the overall value.

It’s not taking into account depth of relationships, information and opportunities.

You what now?

Time for the plain English example to illustrate what my half-formed thoughts are getting at:

For the sake of argument, let’s peg Facebook at 640 million users, Twitter at 170 million and Google+ at 25 million (The first two figures are from Wikipedia and are being used by Dave – the final one is the latest report by Reuters on Google+).

I’ve got hundreds of connection on both Facebook and Google+ and thousands on Twitter.

And yet the highest value interactions I’m having in terms of in-depth knowledge sharing and information which provides direct results for me comes from a couple of small subgroups on each, and a couple of far, far smaller forums, dedicated to relevant topics such as SEO, or Blogging. Those are where I’m seeing really useful information being shared – normally on private and invite-only groups and forums.

It doesn’t matter if a city doubles in size and gains 1.15 times the total amount of restaurants. It matters if the city gains a couple of restaurants that specialise in the food I love, at a price that’s affordable, and most importantly, if those restaurants are places my trusted friends are recommending and visiting.

And that’s why I think his theory of communities and cities can only be applied in very specific ways – my experience of Google+ has been totally different, perhaps because I was fortunate to be invited and engaged by some very cool people straight away, which enabled me to set up and enjoy my own neighbourhood.

It’s why I always enjoy visiting London for work – I have some great clients and there’s a huge potential for more, plus the chance to go to a load of cool events, and meet up with lots of cool friends. But I also enjoy living outside of London and engaging with a great group of digital people locally.

 

Comments

  1. David Cushman says:

    You have 15 per cent more opportunity to form a sub group of value each time the group as a whole doubles in size. That’s 15 per cent more opportunity to form those relationships you value. And don’t forget it’s not just you that gets the value – you are always at the edge of someone else’s adhoc community of purpose. There are also civic-scale improvements the whole can benefit from even if created by a subgroup, too.
    In fact Reed’s Law plays out as one addition to the group as a whole doubles the number of potential sub groups.
    If anything the magic 1.15 may underplay the scale advantage of social networks.

  2. David Cushman says:

    You have 15 per cent more opportunity to form a sub group of value each time the group as a whole doubles in size. That’s 15 per cent more opportunity to form those relationships you value. And don’t forget it’s not just you that gets the value – you are always at the edge of someone else’s adhoc community of purpose. There are also civic-scale improvements the whole can benefit from even if created by a subgroup, too.
    In fact Reed’s Law plays out as one addition to the group as a whole doubles the number of potential sub groups.
    If anything the magic 1.15 may underplay the scale advantage of social networks.

    • True overall, but what if it’s a community around a specific purpose rather than a general network? In that case, the overall size my lead to more opportunity to form sub-groups, but it also brings with it other negative problems, such as a lack of overal cohesion, and a lack of the original focus of the community, along with increased costs of management for the organisers, for example?

  3. Martin Reed says:

    I can see ‘value’ being enhanced in larger communities if you’re thinking in terms of resources; for example,it stands to reason that the more members a community has, the more resources (in an online community this would be information/content) there will be, but I’m going to join you with a disapproving voice. 

    Many individuals will join an online community as they see an opportunity for recognition and influence. As a community grows, it increases the risk of these individuals being drowned out – so for many members, a large (or a rapidly growing community) reduces the value they get from the community.

    I’d also add that Twitter isn’t an online community, but that’s an entirely different conversation!

    • Hi Martin,
        Many thanks for the comment, and it’s a very good point about the size of a community versus the ability to be seen and recognised in a smaller group.