Have you ever thought about your social network prior to 2004—back when friends were friends and followers was just a word signifying an order to things? Think about whom you interacted with, whom you knew well, whom you shared with. You might want to sketch out this network. I’ve drawn one version of my social network below­—these are my “in real life” friends and family, the folks I spend my holidays with. I have cut it off at about 50 “connections” to simplify it, but hopefully you get the picture.

For comparison, see the multicolor social graph depicting the folks to whom I am connected through LinkedIn. With more than 1,000 connections this social graph appears to be a pretty densely connected network of professionals.

In each social graph I am intentionally centrally located and the folks with whom I share a connection are mapped out as a series of spokes from me as the hub. In my friends-and-family graph I used solid lines to represent my connections, but I have also added dotted lines to represent “in-laws”: this is a second layer of information. I have drawn family above the equator and friends below the equator: this is a third layer of information. And notice that not all lines are the same length: this could be a fourth layer of information. Though not entirely drawn to scale, some relationships are tighter than others.

In the LinkedIn network the colors represent the origin or nature of my connections, a fifth layer of information. Most of my connections are connected themselves—a sixth layer of information. And though it is impossible to see, the size of each node varies based on the number of connections that that person has—a seventh layer of information.

I share these social graphs because I strongly believe that the science of social networks is quickly becoming a new competency for medical educators. Understanding the tools for social network analysis is vital to your professional development. Appreciating the influence of existing social networks is vital to your planning. And turning existing social networks into engineered communities of practice may be our only chance at fixing what ails the U.S. healthcare system. My advice: ensure that someone in your company is thinking about this stuff and, if you need help, reach out to your own professional network to find support!

Brian S. McGowan, PhD, has dedicated the past 12 years to medical education as a faculty member, mentor, accredited provider, and commercial supporter. The opinions expressed are McGowan’s and do not represent the views of past, current, or future employers. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianSMcGowan.

More of Brian's Columns:
Point-of-Care Social Learning for Healthcare Providers

Solving Problems with Social Technologies

Introducing SocialQI

Results of Research on How Physicians Use Social Media

Social Media: From Adopting to Using