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How LinkedIn Takes the Stress out of Friendships

Professional networks are essentially helping you to do a better job in managing your social capital - especially LinkedIn.
On-line professional networks are successful around the world. In cultures like the US where people are comfortable transacting with strangers you might expect that. But why are these networks also popular in countries like Spain and Italy where business is kept inside friends and family? It is difficult to imagine that you can enter into those circles by posting a well designed profile on your LinkedIn page.

There are two explanations, I think. First and more obvious, social media can help you create weak links. Someone you make a brief acquaintance with and whom you might easily have lost touch with can be kept in your circle thanks to social media. And the possibility also remains for you to turn that weak link into a strong one. Before LinkedIn and other professional networks came on the scene it was just too costly in terms of time and mental focus to update, communicate, keep alive weak tie relationships. "We will stay in touch ..." is easy to say but very hard to do. The impact of on-line professional networks on weak relationships is terrific because they let you exploit this "untapped" reserve of Social Capital.

The second explanation, I think, is that social media — contrary to common belief — allows you to better manage also your strong links. Picking up a phone or visiting someone in person puts you and them on the spot and consumes a lot of Social Capital. If you're asking a friend for a favor personally it is very hard for that person to feel that they can say no. They may resent you for asking. It can be hard to ask as well; many people don't ask friends to help because they are too proud. But if you ask your close friend a favor through Facebook or LinkedIn it signals to the person you're approaching that you do not regard help in this case as a test of the relationship, which instantly reduces the tension for both sides.

In Italy people debate carefully with themselves whether to make a call or send a LinkedIn message to a close business associate. Typically the medium is selected according to the size of the request. For small favors they'll go with LinkedIn; calls are kept for big favors because picking up the phone or calling a meeting just one or twice will consume nearly all your social capital, even with your closest friends. What's more, a request of help can be broadcasted to a group of people, making it even less and demanding on your strong ties.

The issue of social capital costs is a particularly significant in Latin countries and places like China where many of the cultural norms revolve around reputation and social ties. It used to be almost impossible for an individual to obtain an audience with the Emperor of China (when there was one). The reason for this was that if you obtained an audience you could be pretty sure that the Emperor would grant you the favor you planned to ask. But you could see the Emperor (or your close business associate) only once in your life.

By increasing the options on how to contact your strong relationships, professional networks are essentially helping you to do a better job in managing your social capital. You can consume it less rapidly and take the stress out for a healthier and more sustainable relationship. Viva, hu?n téng LinkedIn!
About the author: Harvard Business Review