Creativity = Oddball Friends < 50

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Genius networks: Link to a more creative social circle
by Zella King  May 29, 2012

The greatest artists and scientists have been inspired by brilliant peers. Now technology can help you maximise creativity by fine-tuning your social circles…The social circles in which these artists and scientists moved seemed to foster the free-flowing ideas from which great movements and discoveries sprang.

[Creativity] — The constant tension between alien perspectives and familiar faces seems to be key. Take Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. He was a goldsmith, but his connections to wine-makers enabled him to see the potential of the screw press for printing.

if you belong to several unrelated social groups you are in a good position to uproot ideas from one and use them in anotherWhere many unrelated groups are connected by a few people, a network can begin to develop “small world” properties. This kind of structure is repeated across a surprising range of systems – including scientific collaboration, film-making, power grids, worms’ brains, and even memory itselfA small-world network allows information to travel quickly between any two unconnected people by way of a very short chain of intermediaries.

As the game shows, a few hubs can profoundly affect how far and fast information can travel in a small-world network. But a small-world network isn’t just about strangers. Our friends matter, too.

Most people’s social networks are composed primarily of dense clusters of these close acquaintances. We trust them to act both as fans and critics of our new ideas, reinforcing and developing some aspects and dismantling others. The conformity of a close-knit group helps batter an idea into coherent shape. But they don’t often introduce us to new ideas.

[There is a] “Goldilocks zone” for social networks. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, looked at how the relationships between artists involved in Broadway musicals between 1877 and 1989 affected box office sales (Science vol 308 p 697).

too many strangers dampened the free exchange of ideasBut too many close friends created an atmosphere in which ideas were born of inside references and so only appealed to a limited audience.

That had consequences. In the 1920s, for example, Uzzi found that the people working on Broadway came from an unusually small and interconnected pool, so most productions only involved close friends. Musical theatre hit a low point with a “flop” rate of 87 per centBut Uzzi and Spiro showed that when the mix was right, the links between different social clusters served to spark radically new conventions that resonated with audiences. A good ratio resulted in some of the 20th century’s most critically successful musicals, such as West Side StoryThe ratio was a quantity called Q.

Although they called it the “familiarity index”,

Q isn’t just a straightforward percentage of friends and strangers. Instead, it’s a measure of just how clustered a group is, or the extent to which any two people connected to the same person are also likely to be connected to each otherWhen the Q score was too high, it meant that people had been working together on one musical after another, cloistered with others who had also worked together before, reducing their openness to fresh ideasBut when the Q was too low, teams weren’t sufficiently connected to let ideas flow.

By itself, the act of signing up for Facebook, Twitter or a Google + account does little to improve anyone’s creativity. Take a scattergun approach to eavesdropping on strangers, and you might drown in the tide of disorganised information. Most of us react to this information overload by focusing only on what is already familiar. We find it easier to interact with people who are familiar, especially in situations that give us plenty of choices (Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, vol 15, p 119). This leads to the clustered shape that characterised so many of our social networks (see diagram).

To help you understand whether you’re embedded in an echo chamber of people who all know each other, visualisations can give you a rough sense of your Q score. Apps such as TouchGraph and InMaps provide a “map” of your Facebook or LinkedIn connections.

One way to pepper your social network with the right strangers is by finding the right superconnectors. To find them, you might start by focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve, and then seek out the people who share that interest. On Twitter, for example, the hash tag #creativity will turn up other people who are interested in the topic. The links and connections in their tweets will lead you to second-order strangers who might introduce you to magazines, journals and blogs you would never have known about.

Theoretically, the internet can give you access to a limitless number of interesting strangers. But how many should you be listening to? Anthropologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has placed the upper limit on this number at a puny 150. And in practice, the ones you actually have the time to get ideas from is probably closer to 50.

If you can keep your universe from collapsing to those 50 people, you’ll avoid falling into the insider trap that characterises social circles with a high Q. The best way to do this is by periodically replacing 25 per cent of your usual news sites, blogs or Twitter feeds. Replacing is key: our limited attention span requires a revolving-door approach.

After all that, don’t forget about your local social network. The internet lets you gather novel snippets in unknown social territory. But it is the people around you – in your office, lab or school – who will help you translate these snippets into the real world. Their input will develop the strengths and iron out the weaknesses in your ideas.

Of course, there are those who will groan at the prospect of co-opting their social circles in the joyless pursuit of self-improvement.

They can take comfort in the knowledge that creativity research has done nothing to puncture the notion of the role of individual genius. It has simply proposed that, like Kevin Bacon, few who accomplished great things did so entirely alone.

Zella King is an associate professor at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, UK
After all that, don’t forget about your local social network. The internet lets you gather novel snippets in unknown social territory. But it is the people around you – in your office, lab or school – who will help you translate these snippets into the real world. Their input will develop the strengths and iron out the weaknesses in your ideas.

Of course, there are those who will groan at the prospect of co-opting their social circles in the joyless pursuit of self-improvement.

They can take comfort in the knowledge that creativity research has done nothing to puncture the notion of the role of individual genius. It has simply proposed that, like Kevin Bacon, few who accomplished great things did so entirely alone.

Zella King is an associate professor at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, UK

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