I’m posting from the O’Reilly Emerging Tech conference in San Diego. My pick from this morning was the phrase ‘drying out’ from a talk by Molly Steenson and Michael Kieslinger from Ivrea: the young Filippino women whose SMS traffic was the focus of the Ivrea study had coined this phrase to refer to lukewarm response to persons the group no longer wanted to hang out with.

Drying out connects to a question I’ve wanted to ask Reid Hoffman, who designed the professional networking service LinkedIn, especially after watching the streaming video of a talk he gave at Stanford. Here’s the leader to my question:

In LinkedIn search results people are ranked according to their number of connections. The impression is: the more connections a person has, the more social capital she possesses. Clearly this motivates some people to go out of their way to climb up the ladder. It is a game of growing one’s list of contacts, a perpetual pile-up race to maintain one’s position in the ranking.

Now, relating LinkedIn’s encouragement of such behavior to sociological theorizing about the dynamics of social capital is the point of my question. When studying immigrant communities, World Bank sociologist Michael Woolcock observed that people didn’t grow their networks in a linear fashion. Instead, after a certain saturation point, to move ahead in their lives and enter new spheres of interaction, people had to break the bonds with their existing networks. This was often a painful experience. In Filippino lingo, people had to dry out their old friends to make new ones. The image is one of cyclical renewal of a limited network of meaningful contacts rather than linear growth of an ever-growing Rolodex of futilities.

So my question is this: Should Woolcock be right, and should the same LinkedIn users who now spend their energy growing their networks one day want to do the opposite, and get rid of their excess contacts, how might they dry out these “friends” gracefully?

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