To understand as professionals what networks really are, we must go deeper than just asking ‘How does Facebook work?’ We need to understand what networks are and how they influence and enable specific behaviors.
Private online alumni networks are sometimes called “walled gardens” because they are closed to non-alumni, whereas anyone can join "open" public sites, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Walled garden communities intentionally trade size in exchange for exclusivity.
This was a viable trade-off when social interaction was limited by socio-economic status, geographical location and professional identity. Today, however, near-frictionless online interaction means that alumni can have both kinds of experience: private, "branded" connections with schoolmates, and open-ended networks of co-workers, neighbors, family, and friends.
[The vast majority of alumni interactions from now on
will take place online, not face to face.]
For organizations, creating value within these networks depends on the existence of groups. Metcalfe’s Law shows that the utility of the network is proportional to the square of the number of members. This would be all we need to know, if alumni only connected with others one at a time, forming pairs. But they don't just form pairs. Alumni congregate to form groups.
This is where another insight, Reed's Law, comes into play.
David Reed pointed out that within social networks, groups form. Subgroups within the larger network become critical parts of the network, and their value's growth can be exponential – proportional to the number of potential groups. The larger the network, the faster its value increases.
[The larger the network, the faster its value increases.]
Alumni organizations should help alumni share knowledge and expertise to solve each others' problems. Groups are the most effective way to achieve this. Connecting with individual alumni isn't going to help a graduate use LinkedIn very effectively. Participating in groups of alumni who share common needs or interests will help individuals who have goals for networking.
Understanding the structure, the potential, and the limitations of alumni networks allows you to serve your audience more effectively. Creating value for members can keep alumni organizations relevant to their community, because the vast majority of alumni interactions from now on will take place online, not face to face.
How are you making online tools relevant to your mission?
How are you measuring your success?
Image: Visualization of my LinkedIn network via LinkedIn Labs