Is Facebook devaluing the influence of friendship?

Over recent years, the narrative of trust in peers supplanting trust in institutions has become accepted wisdom. The steady decline in influence of institutions such as the church, government and business has been matched by a concurrent rise in the influence of peers; a process catalyzed by the explosive growth of online social networks, which make the opinions of those peers so readily available.

Numerous studies have posited this hypothesis but it really appeared to gather momentum on the back of Edelman’s (highly influential in its own right) annual Trust Barometer, which in 2005 asserted “Trust shifts from ‘authorities’ to peers”, explaining that “trust in established institutions (business, government, media) and figures of authority (CEOs, heads of state) is being supplanted by a personal web of trust that includes ‘colleagues,’ ‘friends and family,’ ‘a person like yourself’”.

This school of thought has taken firm hold in the marketing world, devaluing previous assumptions about the ability to influence consumers via 1-way communication and obsessing us with the creation of influencer-strategies where we seek to stimulate conversation and participation, encouraging networked influencers to spread our message to their peers on our behalf (what Griffin Farley has termed Propagation Planning).

So it comes as something of a surprise to note more recent Trust Barometer findings which suggest that our trust in peers is now in decline. This trend was noted last year by my colleague Patricia McDonald (then of BBH Labs) who pointed to a 20% decline in the influence that US respondents ascribed to peers between 2008 and 2010, a trend that has continued in 2011. Concurrently, the influence of CEOs (and ‘experts’ generally) increased by 19% between (2009 – 2011) see the full report here.

Edelman data shows declining influence of peers vs. increasing influence of CEOs between 2009 and 2011

Edelman seem not to offer an opinion as to the underlying causes of this shift so we are left to speculate. I wonder whether the changing nature of our relationships (catalyzed by social networking) is causing them to weaken with a consequent decline in the level of trust we ascribe to them? Is the way we use Facebook weakening the influence of friendship?

Naysayers (and your parents until they joined Facebook) have long questioned the substance of friendships conducted virtually. But an uneasiness around the number of ‘friends’ we have amassed and our ability to actually maintain relationships with all these people has become more prevalent recently. This trend was the focus of the launch campaign for Microsoft’s ill-fated Kin smartphone, a sociological study following individuals as thy sought to build real-world relationships with friends they had only ever encountered virtually.

The scientific basis of this questioning of the validity of online friendships is provided by the oft cited Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University first put forward the theory in 1992 that “the way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces”.

Back to Edelman’s findings, a contributing factor to the declining influence of our peers would appear to be that we simply have too many with whom to sustain relationships built on “trust and obligation”. That our mania for collecting Facebook friends and unwittingly rendered these friendships less meaningful. So what does this mean for brand’s carefully-constructed influencer strategies?

Whilst friend influence (as defined by Edelman) may not reach the heights of 2008 again in a hurry, our peers have always influenced us (we’ve just paid attention more recently because we’ve been better able to follow and influence their conversations) and will continue to influence us. However, for this influence to be useful in the building of brands, we must focus more on the quality of ‘friendship’ over quantity.

For social networks looking to command brands’ marketing budgets, the key will be helping people manage different kinds of friendships and prioritize more meaningful ones (whether through the segmentation of an existing network like Facebook Groups or the creation of new, tighter networks like Path which limits users’ total number of connections to 50). For our part, marketers need to pay less attention to generic metrics like ‘likes’ and more to defining exactly what we’re hoping to achieve, how peer-influencers will help us to achieve these objectives and how to engage with them in their social networks in order to achieve this.