The Facebook Undertow – We're All Getting Caught In It

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On many instances I’ve made the argument that online social networks (like Facebook) should mimic real life social networks to get optimal output for individuals. My main contention used to be around the age-old adage of: it’s the quality of the connections not the quantity that truly counts.
I’m actually starting to discover that quantity plays a unique factor in online social networks, and it’s a new thought (at least to me), that I’ve titled: The Facebook Undertow.
Here’s what happens: in order to truly expand and build your online social network, it must be attractive to the people who you are connecting to. Meaning, if they see no value – beyond being connected to you – what is their impetus to truly connect? For most, they’re not just connecting to you, as an individual, they are connecting to your network. This network has to demonstrate a certain level of value and quality beyond being able to “poke” you as freely as they want.
To build this value and quality, the notion of quantity does play a huge factor. “How many people want to be connected to this person?” is a very valid question for someone to ask. Because we’re all guilty of letting the quantity factor play a role in who we’re connecting to, I’m switching my stance for online social networks to: it’s the quality and quantity of your connections that truly count.
I’ve noticed something rather interesting on my own Facebook profile in the recent weeks. As new people try to connect with me, they’re looking at who else I’m connected to, and as that list increases (by both quantity and quality), I’m noticing something new:
Facebook Undertow – where people get sucked in (seduced) by the connections of the network over the individual they’re trying to connect to. I also sense that people are looking at my Facebook profile and having a reaction akin to: “well, if so-and-so has accepted him as a ‘friend’, I should probably do the same.”
While this works out fine for me, I find myself getting sucked into the Facebook Undertow as well. I catch myself not just looking at someone’s profile, but who their friends are, and if I see value in a connection based not only on the first degree (pixel) of separation, but the second one. It is becoming increasingly influential in my decision to connect (or not).
And that’s the sound of the sucking Facebook Undertow. It all seems calm and nice on the surface, but when you take a look at yourself (and who you’re connecting to), you notice that the community you are looking to grow is not based off of the people you know and would like a closer connection with, but also to whom that person knows as well.
“It’s not about who you know_ it’s about who knows you.” This may well be an over-used sales quote, but it’s becoming the battle cry of hardcore Facebookers as they, themselves, get caught in the Facebook Undertow.
This Blog posting is not a warning to be leery of the Facebook Undertow. The truth is that getting caught up in it has given me a unique Marketing perspective on Facebook and how the general public adds friends or joins groups. There’s a subconscious motion towards groups of people versus individuals in online social networks. These individuals build complex and quantity-fueled profiles and groups. They are also developing and nurturing a new Marketing and Communications channel where their own Personal Brand takes center stage and they, themselves, become a media property.
My guess is that the people who get the most out of Facebook from a Marketing and Communications perspective in the near-future, will be the ones who enjoy a nice and steady Facebook Undertow.


  1. Mitch:
    I tend to look at who people’s “friends” are on many networks…Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I don’t do it to help decide if I want to connect with them based on who they know. I do it more to extend MY network.
    Maybe I will look at their network to see who else in there I have heard of (perhaps on a great podcast hosted in Beautiful Montreal!) and connect with that person. I tend to use the original connection as a springboard to others.

  2. What you refer to as the Facebook Undertow reminds me of the “who do you hang-out with?” question everyone would get when starting “high-school” and meeting new friends. Often they just wanted to be part of your “clique” if they saw value in it. Interesting how basic sociology applies to the online world.

  3. One man’s undertow is prelude to another man’s surf. I’ve experienced undertow on nearly every major social networking site, and each has its quirks. LinkedIn, for example, has a magic number of 500 connections. Once you hit 501, you’ll have steady surf to ride.

  4. As our networks become more complex and interwoven, it is interesting to use visualization tools to make them a bit more understandable. For example, the “Connection Cloud” application in facebook does a good job of giving you a visual depiction of what your networks look like. My own personal example: is a fascinating study of social dynamics. On the top portion are my Mexico contacts, mostly from high school. Most of them came on to Facebook in the last month and as you can see it is a tightly knit group. In the middle are my contacts from my undergrad. Less tightly knit, but still somewhat interconnected. And finally the mother of all networks the McGill MBA. Everyone is connected to everyone else, and it is so dense you can barely make out who is in it. Perhaps it is a testament of the networkability of an MBA. I would be curious to see if these pattern are reflected in other people’s networks. Mine is very education centric, rather than work centric ( perhaps thats why it works so well in facebook). If you don’t mind sharing I would love to start a collection of these network maps, and see if any patterns emerge. Perhaps their only shortcoming is that they are static. and don’t reflect your actual network… Generated in India, served up in North America…. ahhhh globalization at its finest

  5. Coming back from Yulbiz last night, I got a vivid grasp on the undertow this morning. Not that I was looking at my new found friends’s networks to appreciate their worth, but to see who was in their network that I knew and forgot about. The whole thing was time consuming to say the least…and will get exponentially worse 🙂

  6. Mitch,
    Although i don’t argue with your hypothesis that network size alone can be an attractive commodity, i do want to point out that facebook’s own privacy structure (facebook hides your profile unless you override that permission and shows your friends by default) reinforce the quantity over quality argument as that’s the only window available into your personae.
    Perhaps online your network is you.

  7. This has turned into a great conversation.
    Sean – I think the fact that Facebook has the default set that you can see someone else’s Friends, but not Profile, speaks volumes to the Facebook Undertow. What percentage of people do you think change that default setting?
    I think it begs the notion that, “you can’t see all of my stuff, but here’s who I know” – as if that’s the biggest selling point as to whether or not we should connect.

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