Web 2.0 or Why My Head Hurts

The possibilities of building relationships across the internet can leave us a little agog. We’re amazed for good reasons: common sense tells us that we can’t cope with limitless information or relationships. We have this image of other superhumans managing hundreds of fruitful relationships in dozens of countries, which is of course a myth. In my opinion those who heed common sense may well find the most productive ways to exploit the potential of web 2.0

You can only have so many friends.

Research from the early 1990’s found a correlation between the size of a human neocortex and how many others we can succesfully relate to. Evolutionary Psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar of Liverpool University and others predicted that human’s would be able to ‘maintain’ about 150 acquaintances – and this figure matched research on the size of neolithic villages (‘primitive’ comunities tend to split once they reach a figure of 150 members) and more modern personal networks.

We can recognise far more people than that – but the reality is that our brains only have the capacity to manage a limited number of relationships – each of various qualities.

This has literally mind-bending implications for people working in an apparently more connected world and for how non-profits might use web 2.0 technologies…..

Here are some perhaps counter intuitive suggestions. They are aimed mostly at web 2.0 for the charity and non profit sectors and drawn partly from reading Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins (thanks to Oliver Nyumbu for pushing this my way) and Frederick F Reichheld on The Loyalty Effect.

Exclude to Include

  • Choose your friends with care. “The Loyalty Effect” essentially sets out how you can invest in the right long term relationships to achieve what you want to achieve. From a business point of view it argues that not all customers are good customers and that not all investors are the right investors. It cites how Nike set out to find long term investors – those who understood the company and shared its long term aims. Given the limits on maintaining relationships how can this be applied to the networks built through web 2.0?
  • Make them work for it. Jim Collins gives a delicious example of how a non-profit can leverage the talent and energy it needs to get things done. Wendy Kopp set out with the simple idea of persuading America’s top graduate to spend two years teaching in public schools before embarking on their ‘main’ career. A key tactic in the success of Teach for America was to be very, very fussy about who got involved. She made the graduates compete for places (you value something your work for) and only 15% made the cut. This in turn encouraged financial backers who understood that they would be associated with quality, which broadened the range of people who could benefit.
  • Weeding for higher yield. A similar illustration from Collins’ book is Roger Briggs – a head of physics at a publicly funded school in Colorado. He turned the notion of tenure on its head. Instead of granting staff tenure if they didn’t mess up, he only gave it if they proved to be excellent. He created an atmosphere of high achievement, high motivation and respect across staff and pupils. He created a situation where people wanted to belong and so made strenuous efforts to make the grade.

In a web 2.0 world voluntary organisations risk wasting huge amounts of precious effort on unproductive relationships with people who can now effortlessly associate themselves with your cause (press here if you want to join our ‘club’).

The real challenge is to build relationships which allow a virtuous circle of support and energy. This not only creates a huge pool of talent to tap, it also motivates those working immediately inside the organisation.

But that’s rude…

It may seem like bad news to exclude the potential of much wider support. However should every organisation set out to attract and relate to those who are most likely to help get things done, we can create a series of powerful tools. After all your online volunteers – those using the web to stay with you – will enjoy a much better experience. They are happy that they are not wasting one of those precious 150 chunks of relationship head space.

Imagine a situation where you know similar organisations with equally potent networks of supporters. When you need to tap into a wider network for help these groups will be far more powerful than a database listing the email addresses of thousands of indifferent people.
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