02/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Facebook Effect: How Social Media are Transforming Our Capacity to Achieve

In just 4 years, Facebook and other social media have revolutionized the way in which young people communicate. Now, they are unlocking a vast and unexpected potential for the rest of us.

Achievement in almost any area of life is heavily dependent upon other people. We tirelessly spend time cultivating social relationships, choosing whom we would like to know, and rejecting people who live to far away or root for the wrong football team. The result of all our efforts is our own tightly knit community, our personal network.

Our networks are important for more than simply the number of people that we know, but for the kinds of people that we know. Sociologists label those in our inner circle -- family, best friends from high school or college, longtime co-workers and perhaps a handful of others -- as "strong ties."

Then there is the larger circle, those with whom we are acquainted but are not nearly as close to. We know who they are and we know how they relate to us, and would likely join them for a cup of coffee if we ran into them unexpectedly. These are our "weak ties."

Each of our personal networks is made up of a similar combination of strong and weak ties. This much is not surprising, given the uniformity of how we organize and grow and live in the western world. But what may surprise you is the difference in relative importance of these two groups in our life's journey.

Cultivating Weak Ties

In his oft-cited 1974 study "Getting a Job," sociologist Mark Granovetter arrived at a startling conclusion -- weak ties are almost always more valuable to us than strong ties. Most people, Granoetter discovered, find new jobs, or for that matter new information or new sparks of insight not from those we are close to, but rather from those we are acquainted with -- those who are currently leading different lives than us. For example, if you get fired today, your current co-workers are the least likely source of finding a new job. Those who are outside of our insular circle of family and very close friends occupy a distinctly different space in the world than us, and they are much more likely to know something we don't, or to have experienced something we haven't. In so doing, they often lead us to the bright colors in our lives, the unexpected changes of direction, the rare opportunity or critical knowledge that on our own we would likely never have discovered.

It turns out, our quest to manage more and more of these beneficial weak ties has been a major factor in the evolution of our species. The human brain has changed more in the last 3 million years than in the previous 500 million, nearly doubling in volume. What changed the most was the growth of the neo-cortex, the part of the brain that deals with complex thought and reasoning. Interestingly, if you look at any species of primate (any variety of monkey or ape), the more developed their neo-cortex the larger the groups of people they live with. Many scientists now believe that our brains have evolved so dramatically in direct response to handling the complexities (and reaping the enormous benefits) of larger social groups.

But as human beings, we can only deal with so much information at once. Understanding how we relate to each person in our network, and how they in turn may relate to each other requires a significant amount of brain capacity. This upper limit, which cognitive psychologists refer to as "social channel capacity," results in very similar numbers of weak ties that exist within each of our personal networks. Studies show that for the majority of us, this number is typically less than 300.

That is, until now.

For the first time in human history, technology enabled social media allow us to exponentially expand our network of weak ties, potentially into the thousands over a lifetime. In so doing, these tools dramatically increase the flow of knowledge and opportunity available to each of us.

Think back to the company where you were working ten years ago. How many coworkers are you still in contact with? I would be surprised if the number is more than 5.

Contrast this illustration against the current circumstance of Marc Matieu, who recently left the Coca-Cola Company after a successful international career built over decades. Marc is on Facebook, and leaves Coke with more than 100 facebook "friends" from around the world. What are the odds that nearly all of these people will remain in Marc's social network for the next ten years? The next 20? How many ideas or opportunities do you think they will stimulate to his benefit over the same time period?

Our species has strived for millions of years in pursuit of increased ability to manage social networks. The advent of Facebook and other social media tools, and the resulting explosion in our capacity to manage and benefit from larger and larger social circles may very well be one of the most important outcomes of the digital age.

How has Facebook or other social media impacted your professional life?

If you are not yet on Facebook, is 2009 the year you plan to join?