INDEX OF ARTICLES

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" [asked Alice]"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat."I don't much care where--" said Alice."Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat."--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation."Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

Extract from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

It's a small world: The answer is there to be found!

There are many ways in which this most famous quote may be interpreted, but to us social scientists it illustrates perfectly the first and most important law in networking, that is, the law of the Small World. It says that everyone is somehow connected to anyone else. Therefore if you have a question, make sure that you send it out to a number of people, who will pass it on within their network. Then, if you ask around long enough, you can be sure you'll find the person with the answer to your question--the needle in a haystack. Still, I don't know about you, but sometimes my question just doesn't get an answer, no matter how many people I ask. The reason is not always obvious: Do I ask the wrong questions, have the wrong network, or is it something else? The remainder of this article deals with the art of questioning.

We will look at the following topics:

  • Who in your network should you ask?

  • What will happen to your question while it is being passed on?

  • How should you ask?

  • How much can you ask?

Who should you ask?

If you have a question, who do you think would have the answer? A close friend, a distant acquaintance, or even a friend of a friend? Of course, all depends on the question you've got! If your question is about bookkeeping and your close friend happens to be an accountant, he is clearly the person to ask. But suppose he doesn't have the answer. Where to go then? Well, generally your friend will have another friend who will be able to help you out or who will know someone else who can.

In networking terms, your close friend and you would have a "strong tie," as opposed to the "weak tie" between your friend's friend and yourself. Daniel Levin et al.1 found that trusted weak ties provide the most useful knowledge. Trust here means benevolence-based trust (the person cares about me) or competence-based trust (this source approaches things with professionalism and dedication). Therefore, when looking for your needle, you are looking for weak ties in a caring or a professional and dedicated environment.

You would like to have your question being passed on through a chain of friends until it reaches the source that can provide you with some information, funding, a job, or whatever you've been asking for.


Figure 1.Passing your question through a chain

You don't want your networking chain to be too long though. This was illustrated in the Columbia Small World Research Project2 in which 60,000 e-mail users were asked to reach one of 18 randomly chosen people living in 13 different countries by forwarding messages to their own network. All of those who succeeded did so within five to seven "steps," which shows that longer chains (that is, with more than six links) simply don't work. However, from personal experience I would even say that for my search to succeed, the networking chain should not exceed three links. Which leads us to another interesting question.

How do questions travel within networks?

Humans tend to interpret everything around them. Always. This is perhaps most obvious in the spreading of rumours, which Allport and Postman3 analysed in detail. They found that rumours are being shortened as they are being passed on. Certain details are omitted. But the most important process during the spreading of rumours is the one of assimilation: certain aspects of the rumour are changed to make the story more coherent in the mind of the listener.

As I see it, requests undergo the same modification as they are circulated within a network. Anything you say can and will be distorted, changed, reformulated, and blown out of proportion. Your initial question will be adapted to the perspective of each listener. So how are you ever going to get a question answered within six steps?

How should you put your question?

The Cat in Alice in Wonderland is right: If you don't know exactly where you want to go to, it doesn't matter which direction you take. The same holds for requests: If you don't know what you want, you'll get anywhere but to the needle you're looking for.

Allport and Postman said that only certain items are retained in a rumour while being passed through:

  • The short ones. To give an example, one of my friends--an interim manager--once asked me: "I cut companies in half. Do you know of any that need cutting?" Short items cannot be shortened and therefore they stand a good chance of surviving the network.

  • Items that describe movement. In the example above, cutting in half clearly is about movement.

  • (Familiar) labels and symbols. If my friend would say: "I'm a company-lumberjack. I cut companies in half," he would label himself and therefore his question.

  • The first in a series. The term "company-lumberjack" remains the longest, since it's the first one mentioned.

So if you want your request to stand a chance of being passed on while at least reflecting your original intention, you'll have to come up with one that is short, contains an element of movement, uses labels and familiar symbols, and gives an idea of the relative importance of its different components. It's as easy as that. So carefully think your question through before you start circulating it, keeping in mind what exactly you want to know in the first place.

How much can you ask for

While looking for a job, I met up with Hans, an old friend of mine. I gave him my resume and asked him if he could help me. His response was to immediately hand me my resume back. And by doing so he taught me a very important lesson. "Dick, while giving me your resume you are actually asking me the following," he explained, "you want me to analyse your resume and come to a conclusion about your possibilities, what kind of job you would like, and company you want to work for." And he continued: "Then you want me to think about all of my friends, decide whether they would hire you or not, and introduce you to them." He then ended on these words: "And I should do this for you, who so nonchalantly asked me to do all the thinking you should do yourself? Dick, you are asking too much."

Your Take-Home Message

Make a sensible request. So before anything else, do your homework! Then deliver your request in the most distortion-proof way possible--ask for a name, a person, something specific. And keep asking!

References

1 D. Z. Levin, R. Cross, L. C. Abrams, "The strength of weak ties you can trust: The mediating role of trust in effective knowledge transfer," Academy of Management Proceedings, MOC: D1 (2002).

2 P. S. Dodds, R. Muhamad, D. J. Watts, "An experimental study of search in global social networks," Science 301, 827 (2003).

3 G. W. Allport and L. J. Postman, "The basic psychology of rumor," Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II 8, 61 (1945). Reprinted in E. E. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, E. L. Hartley (eds.) (1959): Readings in social psychology (3rd ed.) (London: Methuen; Daniel Chandler, UWA, December 1995).