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Networking 2.0 Series: Q&A with Julia Hobsbawm, Author of Fully Connected

by Bennett Voyles

July 19, 2017

Julia Hobsbawm, Author of Fully Connected
Julia Hobsbawm at the Hay Festival 2017

From the smoke signal to email, advances in communication have had organizational consequences. In this series, we’ll look at how online social networks are beginning to change the way business is done: first, at what coaches and academics have learned about what electronic networks are and aren’t good for and a Q&A with Julia Hobsbawm, author of Fully Connected; second, at what the latest research says about how to make your personal network work; third, at some of the innovative ways in which Chinese businesses have learned to use social networks; and finally, at how the social network may evolve from here.

Today, we pack more computing power in our pocket than it took to get to the moon. We can send a message to anyone in the world in less than a second, and if the person answers in a different language, have it translated in two. By rights, this addition to our capacities should be making us feel more powerful than ever. So why do so many of us feel more anxious, more distracted, and less productive?

In her new book, Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload, Julia Hobsbawm blames our state of anxious distraction on social and information overload and argues that to feel better, we need to put ourselves on a healthier information and social connection diet.

“Our lives today are full of cognitive dissonance, all based around some of the tensions which happen when you put human beings, with their natural limits, in a computerized social world that is literally programmed to be without limit and never switched off. Unlike computers, we do not have limitless storage nor do we have unlimited time: we still only have 168 hours in the week,” she writes.

Hobsbawm, founder and managing director of Editorial Intelligence, a British editorial and conference consultancy, argues that we’re living in an era not unlike early industrialization, where the gains made by humanity came at a terrible toll on our physical and mental health. It’s a time that “has its own belching factory smoke, its own unhealthy consequences.”

In a recent interview over breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of Soho House, the Berlin outpost of the private London club, she talked about how people and organizations can learn to manage the downsides of our hyper-connected age.

How did you get interested in networking as a subject?

I’m self-taught—I don’t have a degree—and so I’ve been led by my own curiosity, which is a luxury, actually. I was born with a sort of silver networking spoon in my mouth because my father was a very well-known academic and so I had the advantage of great networks as I was growing up, but equally, in my own career I was basically a failure and an outsider. Now of course this is a luxurious position to have had—Malcolm Gladwell calls people like me outliers. To have the benefit of not coming from a fixed system and mindset is hugely valuable today, a world in which everyone is basically making their own luck.

In the Eighties and the Nineties, I wrote a lot about communications and I wrote a lot about the relationship between public relations and journalism and the landscape around information. But by the late Nineties, around the time when you’d had an explosion of television networks and you were beginning to have an explosion of the Internet, I realized what was going to be required in the market was a sort of navigation system. There was so much knowledge coming at people and so many limitless possibilities for relationships that some sort of curation was going to be required. And because I didn’t know what I was doing—I had no training, no road map—I just had to start reading and learning and thinking about it, and that led me to the most fascinating, under-explored area of network science, social network analysis.

Social network analysis really came into its own with the Internet, because suddenly large pools of data could be mapped and patterns could be seen. And what interested me was not the possibility of mapping such huge data sets but the structure of the analysis itself. What I learned through my research is that there are some scientific laws of networks that hold true regardless of whether you’re looking at the structure of a tree, a city, or the spread of a disease.

The reason that interested me is because—a little bit like architecture or medicine—if you see the patterns, then you might be able to start making different decisions about the behavior that might change the outcome. I feel that if we start casting more light on these patterns it will inform how we behave in areas where we are currently not doing so great globally, like productivity, like local government, arguably like national government, where the network structures don’t appear to be working as well.

So that’s how I became interested in the science and philosophy of networks, even though what I was doing with Editorial Intelligence would be classed as networking, which is enabling different individuals and sets of individuals to connect and to meet and to do better as a result. 

What’s the problem with the online social networks?

It seems to me that the underlying drive behind social networks is basically scale and speed and profit. And therefore they are unable to factor in a level of intangibility that happens with human knowledge. And so it risks undermining its own effectiveness by overwhelming its users. We are sort of strangling ourselves with over-connectedness.

For example, I’m on LinkedIn and I find it very valuable. However, LinkedIn is like the U-Bahn network here in Berlin: you have to know your destination. You don’t want to go to Alexanderplatz and not know where to go. You want to go to Alexanderplatz and know you could go to 25 different places and have Alexanderplatz be the hub that enables you to go there efficiently.

More than a billion people are now on Facebook. Half a billion are on LinkedIn. Are you saying that’s too many subway stops for us to handle?

We’ve reached peak connection, and yet we still lose vital information and vital intelligence. The global security agencies can’t catch every terrorist. People can’t find every piece of information they need when they need it. And so I think that we are beginning to understand the limits of full connection as well as the limitlessness of it.

The narrative has told us that this limitlessness and scale is a wholly good thing. Well, it obviously isn’t. You can’t be in 15 places at once. If I don’t go back to my family tonight and I go on the road somewhere else, and then somewhere else, and somewhere else, well, I can be busy and I can be connected and I can probably reach a lot of people but where’s my family life going to be? We’ve become infatuated by limitlessness and we need to make choices.

Is the architecture of the networks part of the problem?

I think that the technology companies have overreached themselves and they’ve misjudged the human. And I think that we are all at risk of misjudging the human and believing that we should fundamentally outsource ourselves to the machine. And I don’t buy that. Which is not to say that I’m not as umbilically linked to my iPhone as the next person, but I understand that what will make me happy and safe and secure and hopefully creative and productive and supportive has nothing to do with the technology I use. Or not completely.

What network science seems to show is that behavior is both highly predictable and highly random. Now, social networks and the algorithm-led determinants are entirely trying to control the predictable and not to observe and respect the random. But the random is what you feel, the random is that you are friends with one person one day and then you don’t want them seeing your innermost thoughts the next.

It’s all that poetry in the middle I think we’re failing to observe. I wonder whether one of the reasons why creative, narrative story and the rise of television in all these formats are so interesting is because we’re all searching for meaning more not less. You would think in a way that Facebook is enough, but it’s not, we need more than that. 

What should society be doing differently?

We need to look much more closely at the emotional, the philosophical, the moral, and the practical management of how we deal with these networks—and that’s what I call social health. If I could wave a magic wand, we would look at how to apply network science to new behaviors and norms in the workplace, in the high street, that would target both social mobility and productivity. And that means effectively putting the same level of investment that we have made in medicine, in nutrition, in what has been called wellbeing, into strategies around our network behaviors.

How about as a manager or an individual?

I’ve developed a six-point plan I call hexagon thinking. Hexagon thinking is fundamentally about saying, let’s not overload ourselves with structures and systems that are just not workable and viable. That hexagon is divided into a top layer of a trio of factors, which make up social health—knowledge, networks, and time. You need a strategy and a plan to manage, curate, and have the right diverse mix of knowledge and information sources—and most individuals and organizations don’t. You need to manage your connections and information intake in the same way you need to make sure you eat enough fruits and vegetables. How you spend your time, what you read, what you put on your calendar is as critical as what you put in your body.

The other three sides of the hexagon are process management, communication, and finally, what I call the sixth sense—instinct. It’s your bullshit detector. It’s “Is this timeline viable? Is this project workable? Do we know the right people to make it happen?”

What do you hope to achieve with Fully Connected?

I hope I’m like one of those seminal cookery writers like Elizabeth David or Nigella Lawson who tell you what ingredients and techniques you need to be a good cook. What you cook is kind of down to you.

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