A social network – in the truest, offline sense of the word – is a curious thing.In a recent lecture on Leading Organisations in Business, my class was shown various maps of social networks in organisations. In these graphics, every member of each group was reduced to a dot, swelling or shrinking in size depending on the number of relationship-lines it bore. This supposedly demonstrated the importance of the links an individual has with others in their environment for information and power transfer. Your location in a network, with whom you interact and with whom your peers interact all determine your level of power. For example, in a group of otherwise monolinguists, the friendly polyglot dictates the conversation and holds the key to the flow of information.
The German chap next to me in the lecture theatre casually raised his arm in question on this point.
“So, do you suggest that after this session we go home, take out a pen and paper and map our friendships to see whom exactly we dominate and who we can cut out for good – who offers us nothing?”
His Teutonic precision cut the class like a knife. Silent gasps and haughty sneers filled the room. “Who is this man to say he can engineer his friend-group like that?” “Who died and made him King?” “This is the talk of a sociopath.”
The truth: a quiet panic set in. The chorus of nervous giggles covered up the insecurities of each student, a protective cushion as thin as the layer of skin that forms on a cup of milky tea left standing. What if he were their friend? Did they have enough to offer those in their networks not to be booted on close-inspection?
In 2018 we are crippled by the overwhelming influence of our online social networks. The perceived importance of a like, a follow or a well-meaning comment in cyberspace carries through to how we feel in reality. When someone that you thought had hardly noticed you in person yesterday requests to follow you on Instagram today, you are reassured that your brief encounter in fact made an impact. The next time you see them in real-life you wink and fire finger guns at them from across the room: “yes, it’s me, the guy you chose to see promoting their hot content on your Instagram feed – you’re welcome”.
This is all well and good, but the opposite is also true. When the friend from junior school (of whom the only real memory you have is your propagating the rumour about them that they ate a whole can of cat food once) decides to unfollow you, and you notice it, and you are still following them, they instantly have the upper hand. “Oh! James Punt is too good for me now? Was my last Instagram story of my delicious-looking bagel not challenging enough for you, Mr. Whiskers? Why am I not enough for you, James?” A cold, unfeeling reciprocal unfollow ensues, but it is too late. The damage is done, and your ego has taken a beating.
Consequently, the idea of someone being able to unfollow you in reality is a more daunting prospect now than ever. But does my classmate’s proposed manufactured approach to social networking in reality hold some credence? Should everyone actively, pragmatically decide who their friends should be, eliminating no-hopers, to give themselves the best chance to succeed in life and attain the most power to leverage for the future? And if so, how do we ensure that we are not cut out by those people with whom we want to maintain relationships?
There are some who support this idea of carefully choosing your friends and constantly pruning your network as the best approach for success. Late motivational speaker and entrepreneur Jim Rohn is quoted as saying “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”, and a whole host of online business gurus and entrepreneurs stand by this mantra.
David Burkus, associate professor on leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University, recently elaborated on this idea in an article for the Mission  . He explained that research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, professors at University of California and Harvard respectively, has found that this influence from your closest five friends goes even deeper: the behaviours of those individuals as far as three degrees of separation away from you in your network can alter your actions, from taking up smoking to becoming obese. While this worked nicely for Winston Churchill, we may want to take it as a precautionary note to choose our friends wisely.
Clearly then, the people in our networks can have a profound effect on us. But does this mean that we should forego our organic, unconscious friendship-making system for something more formulaic (and, dare I say it, German)?
The risk in this approach might stem from a philosophical standpoint. Is it possible to curate friendships, choosing people for your own advancement and development in life without submitting yourself to violation of the Kantian “categorical imperative”? Supposing you maintain reciprocal, fully-informed and consensual relationships, you just might be excused of treating those chosen pals as a ‘means-to-an-end’. But what would old Aristotle say, his rich grey beard curly with wisdom, if he knew that you were picking and choosing your friends based on what they had to offer you?
In fact, he probably wouldn’t say all that much. It can be understood from the Nicomachean Ethics that while he distinguished between perfect friendships (those based on mutual respect and admiration or “goodwill”) and imperfect friendships (those based on utility and pleasure), even Aristotle figured a friendship has to start somewhere – and more often than not that was from a place of exploitation of sorts. So why not pick your friends? After all, the saying goes “you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your friends on your sleeve”.
It would seem as though there is not one clear answer to the problem of social network curation. Anyone with enough patience, and perhaps neuroses, to map out their friendships and place themselves in their favourite possible spot is good in my books, as long as I don’t lose too many followers on the ’gram. As for me, I think I’ll follow Lord Henry’s advice from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray:
“I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their intellects”.