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How Connectivity Shrinks Our World

In trawling through one of the private online discussion forums in which I participate, I came across a question on shifting high-value customers to online services, so I put in my two cents worth. It turned out that Chris, who had posted the original question, worked in London for one of the global professional services firms that I know well, so we exchanged a few emails directly and arranged to meet the next time I was in London. We went from his office in the early evening rain to a cozy local pub for a pint, where we met up with someone he thought I should meet—one of his former colleagues who has established a network of specialist consultants. After a couple of pints, we adjourned from the pub for a curry—as you do in London—and discovered further common interests, values, and beliefs as we hoed into the vindaloo, washed down with Indian lager beer. Fortunately, I escaped before I was too damaged to do justice to the workshop I was running the following day, but we had shifted from an exchange of brief emails to friendships and the foundation of future business collaboration.

This illustrates how communication technologies allow like-minded people from different sides of the planet to find each other and share ideas (and in this instance, also beers). The impact of the new forms of communication available to us is far broader than that. The whole way people meet and communicate is changing. Email, Short Message Service (SMS), instant messaging, cell phones, online forums, chat, and videoconferencing all allow and even encourage ways of communicating and relating with others that are fundamentally different from what has come before. Together, they dramatically change the structure of society and how people interact.

When did you last say or hear someone say "what a small world"? People have an unquenchable fascination with how richly we are connected, never ceasing to be amazed by the seeming coincidences of how one friend knows another through a completely different route. Yes, it is a small world, and growing smaller all the time. The well-known phrase "six degrees of separation" suggests that we are connected to every person on the planet by no more than six steps.

The concept of six degrees of separation originally emerged from experiments performed in the 1960s by Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram. He gave letters to randomly chosen residents of Kansas and Nebraska and asked each one to try to get the letter to a specified person in Massachusetts by forming a chain. They were to start by sending the letter to the person they thought would be most likely to be able to pass it on to the nominated target. It turned out that a median of six steps was required for the letters to get to their destination.

Recently, a new branch of mathematics known as "small world theory" has emerged to study and explain this phenomenon. The heart of the matter is the diversity of our connections. In the past, most social circles were relatively closed. People tended to know the same people as the others within their social group or local community. Let's say Joe knows 50 people. If all those 50 people know only each other, it's a closed group. However, if any one of the group has more diverse social connections and knows people outside, that provides a link through which everyone is connected to the rest of the world.

Small world theory—in its simplest form—studies a circle of people, as shown in Figure 1–1. If each person only has contact with the four people closest to them, it can take as many as five steps to reach everyone in a world of just 20 people. If we add just a handful of more distant connections across this "world," as shown in Figure 1–2, it takes far fewer hops to reach others. It is the connections that bridge distinct and distant groups that create the small world.

Figure 1-1Figure 1–1 It is a big world when you only know your immediate neighbors.

Figure 1-2Figure 1–2 Adding just a few more diverse connections can create a small world for everyone.

The formation of these diverse bridges between people describes what is happening in our hyper-connected world. Increased mobility and migration mean that, even in a small community, you are likely to know people born in many different countries. You can easily keep in touch or reconnect with people you've gone to school or worked with by email or alumni Web sites. You can communicate and form friendships with people you meet online, as I did with Chris in London. Children and teenagers consider it commonplace to chat or play games online with people from all around the world. It is no longer unusual for people to have met their life partners online. From six degrees, we are moving closer to four degrees of separation from anyone in the world, with the possible exception of a few isolated tribespeople. We live embedded in an intensely connected world.

New forms of communication are giving us new ways to interact socially. In the past, when we met someone we could only give him or her our address or telephone number. Email gives us more choices. It's easier to give people your email address than your telephone number, and it's easier to contact someone that way. Mobile telephony allows us to lead far less structured social lives. Instead of making firm arrangements to meet, people go out and then use cell phones to meet on the move. Social events are becoming far easier to organize and more diverse because all it takes is a quick email or text message to get a large group together. I run the Party Alert Network email list, which can in an instant let several hundred people know of social events. A friend sends out text messages to let people know of art exhibition openings and social events. In this way, digital communication is resulting in a substantial broadening of people's social connections. Similarly, employees can connect far more widely within their organizations, and those who would be afraid to walk into their chief executive's office with an idea are often happy to send an email.

Micromessages Make Communication Fluid

Sit in a central café in any European city early on a Friday evening, and you will see troupes of teenagers and young adults sporting that essential accessory: mobile phones. They're speaking into them, swinging them around casually as mating displays, and as often as not, using two thumbs to type brief messages with a practiced ease. The global SMS protocol allows 160-character text messages to be sent to or from any mobile phone.

In 2001, around 40 billion text messages were sent on mobile phones, with a forecast of close to 50 percent annual growth in the subsequent years. For several hundred million people, currently mainly in Europe, Asia, and Australia, this new style of communication is becoming a core part of their daily lives. The uptake in America has been stymied by the inability of U.S. telecom companies to agree on standards, meaning subscribers usually can send messages only to other customers of the same network. In the meantime, the rest of the world is busy exploring a whole new mode of connecting with others.

The spectacular takeoff of instant messaging has paralleled the SMS boom. Instant messaging enables people who are connected to the Internet to compile "buddy lists" of their friends around the world, see when they are online and sitting at their computer, and send text messages to them. The major differences with email are that not only can you interact in real-time in what is closer to a live conversation than sending letters, but also the presence function means you know whether your buddies are there to chat with. From its roots as a social tool, instant messaging is shifting to become extensively used in organizations. Salespeople in the RE/MAX real estate franchise network, covering more than 4,000 offices worldwide, use instant messaging both internally for sharing referrals and externally to converse with prospects and clients. The U.S. Navy is rolling out instant messaging across the whole fleet to streamline technical conversations. Communication within IBM is dominated by the technology, with more than two million instant messages sent daily by employees even in early 2001.

Instant messaging and SMS are examples of what I call micromessages. They are short, informal, and unintrusive. You can see the message and choose how to respond, unlike a telephone call. In practice, these new forms of communication rarely replace existing communication, but add to it. People still meet and call each other, but for other exchanges they may use SMS or instant messaging. Most important, the informality of these micromessages lowers the barriers to communication. Although something may not have been worth a phone call, it's easy and unobtrusive to send instant text. This results in a far greater fluidity of communication. When the only way you can communicate with distant people is in large bulky chunks—letters, email, telephone calls, and the like—it means there has to be a good reason to do so. Micromessages allow smaller things to be communicated, and for many teenagers—and increasingly adults—they have become a means of sharing their daily experience and thoughts. SMS and instant messaging can be powerful marketing tools, if treated appropriately, as you will discover in Chapter 6.

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