While Network Theory has been all the rage in discussions of social media, it provides an imperfect model to describe the reality of social networks.  The main shortcoming is that the connections between entities are more complex than simple “ties” – and they include a notion of time.  I propose that the mathematical concept of Sets is another model that alongside Network Theory provides a more comprehensive view of networks.

Consider this: each of us belongs to countless sets.  I, for one, belong to the set of middle-aged men, set of bald men, persons that live in the Hudson Valley, bald persons that live in the Hudson Valley, etc.  You can see how this can just keep going, right?

There are some patterns here, however.  We could see that we belong to sets according to these criteria:

  • Attributes
  • Shared experience or history
  • Preferences

It doesn’t mean that we can’t have a relationship with someone outside of a set. If for some reason, someone meets another person that they believe may provide them with a good laugh, they might buy them a beer.  People often meet on terms that are outside these sets, but then often, and quickly play the game of ‘what do we have in common’.  Those conversations almost always yield something.


People tend to like other people that are similar to their selves.  Heck, people even choose dogs that look like themselves. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions – I’m talking about the tendency here. School children experience an incredible pressure to conform to norms, and those that don’t usually congregate into sub groups of likeness.

Shared Experience

Soldiers returning from war are forever brothers. They have a common experience that often cannot even be shared with others.  But even sharing a meal, four years at a college, or a memory, such as that as Pearl Harbor provides a common ground of understanding.  Do you remember what you were doing when 9/11 occurred?  We may have absolutely nothing else in common, but that shared memory can be a springboard for a new friendship.


I’m short, you’re tall, I’m red, you’re blue, I’m male, you’re female – but we both like candied walnuts. This can extend to ideologies – we might share the notion that all monarchs should be tarred and feathered on the village green, or that the poems of Rilke are sublime.

Perhaps our propensity to create connections with people who share attributes, experience, or preferences is a narcissistic way of confirming self-worth. Well, I can’t be all that bad if there is someone who also has long ear lobes and likes Charles Mingus!  Perhaps it is the Darwinian or Mendelian mechanism – that we create networks with likeness, only for those likenesses to be thrown into a competitive pool where the strongest or most adaptable will prevail. And perhaps after we have mated and produced our progeny, we continue in this habit that is vestigial, like the tail that is buried at the bottom of our spine.

But what we do know is that our network forming and set creation follows these patterns.  Understanding these patterns may help us be better social media marketers. Would love to hear your own thoughts on this, even if they aren’t like mine.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 and is filed under Digital Advertising, Social Media in Marketing.

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