Social networks are growing at an uncontrollable rate, connecting individuals through a vast network of friends or the social graph as Mack Zuckerberg coined it. The most recent statistics for facebook and twitter put their active user base at over 600 and 150 million users respectively. There's no doubt about this one, social networks have become ubiquitous, an amenity.

something subtle happens to a technology when it achieves amenity: It disappears. It becomes part of the user's world, and the user is absorbed into its world, easily, and seamlessly.
John Seely Brown

As one would expect companies want a piece of the action too. Never before in mankind's history, has there been such a powerful tool for maximum exposure and interaction which therefore presents an immeasurable opportunity for creating a positive brand image or to advertise a product. The great strategy for most companies at this time is to turn this maximum exposure into maximum profit. Unfortunately many are realizing too late that as with any other uncharted region there be dragons, and they bite.

The major tipping point here is an understanding that the underlying principle of successful social media engagement is trust. In other words, when a user on a social network wants to make a decision to buy a product, (s)he typically will check to see if any of his trusted friends on the network can recommended the product.

Orkut is an on-line community that connects people through a network of trusted friends
Find the people you need through the people you trust→ LinkedIn.

The principle of social proof provides an insight into how the decision process works in a situation like this:

If I am uncertain I will take a cue from others.
If other people are doing something, it must be ok for me to do it too.
If other people are refraining from doing something, then it is probably not a good idea for me to do it.

Thus one criterion which we use in determining what is correct is to find out what our friends think is correct. But what happens when our friends are not acquainted with the brand or product in question?

Examples of social proof, originating from outside our personal friendship circles, abound on the internet. In the form of testimonials and reviews, to starred ratings of products or even the number of feed subscribers for a particular blog; all these serve as a yard stick for the unacquainted to measure the desirability of the particular product or brand.

With social networking today the analogy is the same, the number of facebook 'likes' that a brand has or the number of twitter 'followers' serves for its social proof. It's that simple, right? Wrong.

Even as brands are looking to reach more people and flaunt publicly their large following on social networks, they have to be wary of thinking that numbers equals social proof. This may be the case perhaps for the undiscerning user but if you're selling a product or pushing your brand, you must also consider the quality of your followers. There's a saying that goes:

Birds of a feather flock together

The quality of your followers' measure how reliable their recommendations will be, and to a large extent how reliable your brand or product is. It's as simple as the company you would not want to keep in the physical world, perhaps because of their political viewpoints, cultural biases, etc; you should not keep on your social network. To restate the importance of quality of friends and followers, it pays to remember that trust is an intricate part of what social networks is all about. Ordinarily an individual's social graph typically has not more than 100 per persons, for a company this will be several multiples depending on factors such as staff strength, popularity or fame and reach of brand, etc.

For the most part, you'll probably not have serial killers trying to be-'friend' or follow you on your social network, it doesn't however hurt, as part of your social strategy, to look in once in a while and make sure that you do not have a connection that could be detrimental to your brand image.

this article is repost with few modifications from an earlier version on February 7 2011