Social Graphs: What They Are And Why You Should Care

The “Social Graph”—broadly defined– is a network of personal connections.  And your online social graph is becoming the focus of social network strategy—by networks themselves, and by marketers trying to reach you and your friends.

The term “social graph” was invented in the 1980s by social scientists, buy the online social graph was popularized by Facebook, beginning in 2007, to explain how one person’s connections leads to broader network of friends.   One of Facebook’s biggest challenges in living up to its $60 billion valuation is creating real ways for companies to market, using our social graphs—and their implied endorsements—to reach our friends and colleagues.

Why does the Social Graph matter? It’s the basic structure of personal connections you use every day in each social network you belong to.  It’s why you join and invite others to connect on a social network. And therefore, exploiting social graphs for marketing and advertising is the fundamental business model challenge that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn face.

Each online social network has peculiarities about how social graphs organize.  Smaller niche social networks like or Texas Instrument’s B2B network called E2E have more engaged and inter-connected social graphs.

The major networks in North America—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter—each have their own unusual frameworks and rules that bias how we go about building our personal networks that are our social graphs.

Facebook connections tend to be personal, and it’s members are famously active.  600 million accounts worldwide, 160 in the US alone, and 50% of all accounts sign in on any given day.  The average account has 130 friends and posts 90 pieces of content every month.  Wow.  For me, Facebook is my family, friends and close business colleagues.  I want to see what shows up in my wall feed every day—but I also don’t have an incentive to add more people, unless they are important in my life.

I admit I truly love my Facebook account because its comprised of friends and family I value and whom I might not hear from for long periods of time.  Every other day Dave Beshoar, my oldest friend from third grade in Chciago, posts a picture or a link to a You Tube video.  It’s great to hear what he’s up to.

Twitter seems to have a couple of peculiar types of social graphs.  According to recent  Yahoo research, only .01% of Twitter users produce 50% of the posts.  That means 20,000 of us are using Twitter like mad, and 190 million are occasional visitors.

Among us hard core 20,000 Twitter users (disclosure: I post about 5-8 times a day) we’re more likely to have built a large network of followers—500, 1,000, 5,000.    If a person has 20,000 followers on Twitter they must be creating some content of value, right?   How rabid are this .01% of us who tweet like crazy? To crack the top 1,000 Twitter accounts you’ll need at least 325,000 followers.

The Yahoo study also shows that among the very active on Twitter, we tend to follow our own kind; celebrities follow other celebrities, social media types follow each other, people from Minneapolis follow other people from Minneapolis, and so on.  Here it seems is where the real value among the 20,000 activist Twitter users lies.

LinkedIn, of all the major social networks, is built for aggressive network building—and not just to acquire the notoriety of a large numbers of followers.

Becoming a direct connection with someone on LinkedIn usually means you can peruse all of their connections.  It’s easy to search people by geography, industry and other keywords and tell in an instant how many degrees separate you from any of the people in the search results.

You have an incentive to make quality connections because someday you may need to call on them—usually because you need a job or need to make a sale.  LinkedIn groups and other attempts to “activate” users

The quality of links on LinkedIn counts not just to me but to the people I connect with.  If you search my own LinkedIn connections you’ll find what I think is a pretty high quality collection of people I know, have worked with and are my friends in the 3-4 major areas of my interest: social networks, Internet development, strategic business consulting, Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York.

Benjamin Phillion of has posted some research on how many people have how many connections on LinkedIn.  He sampled more than 500 accounts randomly selected from LinkedIn.  Here’s the distribution he found:

A couple of stats jump off the chart for me:

  • There’s a clearly a bunch of people who have just started their networks or started and then stopped building them.  45% have 25-125 contacts.
  • While the number of larger accounts looks small at first,  45% have more than 175 contacts, which  suggests active involvement in building a network of business contacts.
  • What’s with those 500+ people?  If you don’t know, once you get to 500 contacts, LinkedIn stops counting and just lists you as having 500+ connections.

I have to confess I am one of the people with 500+ connections.  I think the total number is probably 550 to 600.  I passed the 500+ mark late last year when I began looking for business for the Minneapolis office of Native Instinct, my new agency.  I was at 400 or so after starting my account in 2004.

(And yes, I will admit that when I got to around 430 or 440 I did organize a push to get another 60+ contacts to earn my 500+ badge.  Okay, okay, now I’m cool.)

As one of the 500+ Club, I admit every once and awhile I see someone who is a direct 1st degree connection of mine and think “who the hell is that?”  Not often, and after scrolling through their resume I recall the conference or tweet that resulted in the connection.

I did my own research about the 500+ Club.  I wondered what kind of people put all the energy into amassing thousands of contacts?  I feel like I just barely skated into the 500+ Club—I wasn’t using any link building, e-mail spammer software to do it (Is there such a thing?  I bet there is.)

LinkedIn sets a limit of 30,000 as the most contacts a single person can have.  How they decided on 30,000 is unknown.  I expect they just looked at some of the biggest accounts and said, “enough!”

Using the search function on LinkedIn, I did an advanced search and sorted by “number of connections.”  I then took the first 100 names on that list and checked each one for what business the person was in, their location, their gender, and if they noted their large number of contacts in their posting.

Occupations of 500+ LinkedIn “Super Connectors”

Gender is the first and most obvious characteristic of these “Super Connectors.”  Their male, like 88% male.  Clearly there’s some testosterone involved in getting to the top of the heap in LinkedIn.  These guys (and 12% gals) also show some pride in their ability to amass 15,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 connections.

“Most Connected Woman on LinkedIn” proclaims Stacy Zapar of Intuit, who says she ranks #9 among all users of Linked In.  Her business? She’s a recruiter, as you might imagine when you see the distribution of jobs I found among the 100 Super Connectors I sampled

The definitions I use here are broad.  “Speakers” includes anyone in the training and workshop business.  “Financial / Insurance” is anyone selling financial advice or insurance of any kind.

I’m a little surprised at the small number of “social media” (their term, not mine, folks) people among the Super Connector class—though Chris Brogan is one big name I recognized on my list.

Geography offered no surprises, other than how widespread people were.  There were as many people in Colorado and Minnesota as in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

You will see the term “LION” on many of these Super Connector profiles.  The term stands for “LinkedIn Open Networker,” and it means that they will accept anyone’s invitation.  While this might suggest a certain promiscuity to some, to others LIONs are actually an important part of the social network that is LinkedIn.  LIONs act as “super social graphs” that reach into people with “closed social graphs.”

If you’re a person who turns down invitations to connect on LinkedIn because you’re picky or just put off by it, the LIONs you do accept bring you one connection level closer to millions of people.  This is a big part of why LinkedIn works.   When you do need to reach out, there are connections however tenuous you can reach out to through the LIONs.

Neil Schaffer says that LinkedIn originally didn’t like the LIONs, and that’s why the 500+ barrier came into being.  They didn’t want the connection count to become like the Twitter follower account.  Then they saw the little extra juice of credibility that LIONs brought to the interconnection of social graphs.

By the way, among the 100 Super Connectors I surveyed I personally was a 2nd degree connection to 98 of them—and a 1st degree connection to the other two.

The social graphs we create in online social networks vary in strength of relationships, frequency of connection, and category of connection.  Facebook faces enormous pressure to keep account information private and in the control of the user.  Twitter stands at the other end because half of their paradigm is people connecting with you whether you like it or not—they’re following you.

LinkedIn may provide the biggest surprises in the next few years as they inch closer to an IPO.  They’re opening their application programming interface (API) to developers which makes me wonder what kinds of low cost / no cost business contact providers will begin to pop up—poor man’s Hoovers, so to speak.

I can deal with that.  But my 15 year old daughter’s social graph is private on Facebook.  And it damn well better stay that way, Mr. Zuckerberg.

Even if you do sell my daughter imaginary birds and birthday cakes.


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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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