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Social Networking: A Status Report

It’s been a few years now since two business magazines named Social Networking Applications the Technology of the Year. I thought it might be worthwhile recapping how far we’ve come since then, and trying to understand why we haven’t come further. Social Networking: Still Not Meeting its Critical Promise

It’s been a few years now since two business magazines named Social Networking Applications the Technology of the Year. I thought it might be worthwhile recapping how far we’ve come since then, and trying to understand why we haven’t come further.

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Social Networking: Still Not Meeting its Critical Promise

This mindmap is a rough taskonomy of social network applications (SNAs) I developed last year. Since then, I’ve been monitoring new applications and their success and (more often) failure. A lot of the applications that have been developed seem to be solutions in search of a problem — simple to develop, kind of interesting, but ultimately, in the cornucopia of sites and applications out there, not terribly urgent or valuable, and ultimately lost in the shuffle.

What is social networking trying to do? Most of the applications so far offer one or more of the eight features or functionalities shown in blue on the mindmap referenced above:

1. Finding people (discovering, rediscovering, or locating them)
2. Building directories, network maps and social networks
3. Inviting people to join your networks
4. Managing access to your networks (“permissioning”)
5. Connecting with people in your networks (using various media)
6. Managing relationships across media (e.g. making the jarring transition from e-mail or weblog-based relationships to voice-to-voice or face-to-face)
7. Collaborating with people in your networks, and
8. Content sharing with people in your networks (and other learning, knowledge-finding and knowledge-sharing functionalities that are arguably the domain of Knowledge Management rather than Social Networking)

MySpace, for example, arguably the most successful SNA so far, is focused on passively helping people find other people (you put yourself out there, and the people you’re hoping to find, for the most part, find you, in contrast to LinkedIn, for example, where you can actively search and connect with people with particular skills, backgrounds, or interests). MySpace and most other SNAs also have some Knowledge Management (KM) functionality — you can share your stuff with others, search for others’ stuff (now often using your trusted network’s recommendations to filter your searches), and do some focused research.

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In a previous article, I nominated the following as the ten most successful SNAs to date:

* Weblogs: Content-Sharing/Filtering + Finding People (in your Communities of Interest) + Publishing/Subscribing + Forum. Weblogs provide context-rich knowledge plus a forum for reader conversations. As social software they are successful because (a) they are easy to set up and maintain, (b) thanks to Google, they attract a lot of attention, but they are also very valuable KM tools, so their social value is a bonus. Some blogs like Zaadz are pushing the envelope as SNAs, adding additional networking functionality.
* Wikis: Collaborating. They have succeeded because they’re the simplest imaginable asynchronous collaboration tool, and don’t mess that up by trying to be something more.
* Del.icio.us: Content-Sharing/Filtering + Finding People (in your Communities of Interest) + Publishing/Subscribing + Forum. Same formula as blogging, but trading off less work for against a poorer-context relationship, by publishing your bookmarks instead of your articles.
* Flickr: Content-Sharing/Filtering + Finding People (in your Communities of Interest) + Publishing/Subscribing + Forum. Just like Del.icio.us except the shared content is images instead of bookmarks.
* DodgeBall: Finding People + Finding Where People Are Right Now. DodgeBall gets around the invasiveness of tracking other people (stalking) by putting a reverse spin on it: You tell DodgeBall where you are and it tells others in your network (current and desired associates, friends, and crushes) when you are nearby, so that, if they are so inclined, they can contact you to meet up.
* BaseCamp: Collaborating + Messaging + Scheduling/Calendaring. An intuitive project management tool that makes contacting project team members using various media, with a minimum of other bells and whistles.
* MySpace: Finding People + Messaging + Content-Sharing. Dead simple social networking tool, primarily for young people looking for friends & romantic interests and sharing music and photos.
* FaceBook: Finding People. Focused on students in high schools and universities, this simple tool lets you establish networks within your current school and track people from former schools.
* Insider Pages: Content-Sharing + Finding People. The content is reviews of companies by consumers. The idea is to take the Consumer Reports or epinions concept local, so that consumers can see what others think about local suppliers. Information not available elsewhere and probably only ever available peer-to-peer. Enormous potential here, especially if Google Maps is integrated. The challenge is getting people to take the time to volunteer their opinions. The way around the challenge is getting reviewers to sign up their friends and neighbours.
* Mind-Mapping: Collaborating. Simply and quickly documents what’s being said and agreed to, graphically, in real time, so that participants in a conference/meeting/community can see and react to it immediately. Gives participants a complete ‘map’ of the conversation as soon as the conversation ends. The mind-map above was made using FreeMind.

Since then, three new variations on SNAs have caught my (and others’) attention:

* Memediggers — tools like digg and reddit that allow groups to amplify and ‘talk’ to each other about issues they agree are important and/or interesting
* Mashups — SNAs combined with other SNAs, or with multimedia or other apps to increase their utility or add visualization or some other functionality
* SNA/Hardware Interfaces — SNAs that connect with your TV, GPS, medical or emergency monitoring system or some other hardware device

There has also been a proliferation of multimedia SNAs, of the YouTube variety.

Mashups, add-ons and other amplifications and combinations of SNA have arguably widened the digital divide even further. Using many of them requires a certain level of comfort and familiarity with basic SNAs. For the majority who go online just for e-mail and rudimentary Google searches, these apps are too technical and too sophisticated. But because combining and adding functionality to SNAs is so easy, there is a blizzard of new such apps each month, and the digital divide grows even wider as a result.

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In the meantime, dissatisfaction with these applications remains high, on both sides of the divide. In my previous article, I outlined ten drawbacks and failings of most current SNAs, which might explain this dissatisfaction:

1. Inflexible, tedious information architecture (“Why is entering this field mandatory?”)
2. Profile poverty (“This tells me absolutely nothing of value about this person”)
3. No separation between What I Have and What I Need personas (the information about you I care about depends on whether I am ‘buying’ or ‘selling’ — even classified ads ‘get’ this)
4. Lack of harvesting capability (“Why do I have to enter this again?”)
5. Populated just-in-case instead of canvassed just-in-time (“Oh, sorry, I no longer work there” and “Oops, sorry, I’m married now”)
6. The most needed people have the least time and motivation to participate
7. Over-engineered and unintuitive
8. Lack of scalability and resilience: Centralized instead of peer-to-peer (when it gets too big or goes down, you’re out of luck)
9. Socially awkward (“I’m not going to tell someone I’ve never met that!”)
10. Low signal-to-noise ratio because of dysfunctional information behaviours (blockages, disconnects, lack of trust) — these need to be accommodated by Social Software tools, instead of ignored

The current generation of SNAs are used principally for recreational purposes. This may be a reflection of the failings above, and the fact that these apps are not yet robust enough to be ready for heavy-duty business use. Beyond the above frustrations, playing around with some of these apps is fun, and that, combined with our deep-seated need for social interaction, and the increasing isolation of our Western culture, accounts for the immense popularity of many of these applications — even though they really don’t work very well.

If these apps are to achieve use and value beyond fun and novelty, however, they need to become more effective, and they need to address real, urgent, important needs and problems. I would suggest there are at least four urgent needs/problems that SNAs could, and hopefully will, fulfil:

1. Finding people to love and live with
2. Finding people to make a living with
3. Finding people who share important or urgent affinities (and then enabling them to organize, activate, and exchange context-rich information peer-to-peer with those people, such as health counsel and ‘epinions’)
4. Enabling powerful virtual collaboration when face-to-face is, for economic or logistic reasons, impossible

Existing SNAs are not very good at doing any of these things, and they’re hopelessly complicated and unintuitive for most people trying to do these things. But if we were to be honest, most of us would have to admit that we’re not very good at doing any of things in any case, with or without technology. For many if not most of us, finding people to love. finding people to make a living with (or at least do meaningful work for), and finding people who share our life’s passion and purpose, is at best a hit-and-miss, serendipitous process.

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The non-people-finding apps above should not be problematic. Virtual collaboration tools developed to date are unintuitive and over-engineered, but we’ll learn to make them simpler and more sensible. Likewise, the organizing and activism and information exchange aspects of affinity-group SNAs lend themselves to traditional software solutions, and we can expect some very powerful and ubiquitous apps to emerge in the coming years to do this.

The people-finding SNAs, however, are much more problematic.

Civilization makes finding people much harder than it was for gatherer-hunter cultures, where the number of people you could expect to meet and know in a lifetime were few, and the diversity of human activities was limited. So we have no intuitive way of finding the right people among the millions who we may have some limited contact with in our lifetimes. So we have to resort to trial and error.

We won’t solve this with top-down standardized centralized databases and web apps either — the process of finding people to love, work with or pursue mutual passions is a complex, highly personal process that does not lend itself to such processes.

How then could we develop SNAs that could accommodate these difficult, iterative, personal processes? Might these SNAs need to be only partly computerized and online, and rely on more ‘essential’ meetups and face-to-face interactions? And how might the filtering mechanisms of such applications be improved to increase the likelihood of finding the right people?

These are complex problems, and they will require the development of processes that are suited to dealing with complexity (most software is designed to address merely complicated problems). We’re not very articulate, after all, at expressing who we’re looking for, or even knowing what and who it is we’re looking for (though, of course, we believe we’ll know it when we see it). Chemistry is often more important than logic in making lasting and meaningful and effective relationships, and in finding the ‘right’ people.

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What we need to do is to run a large number of focused experiments, small scale, improvisational, controlled by the test group bottom-up, to hone some approaches that work. They’ll undoubtedly vary by culture and by objective. Dating services, employment and contracting agencies, and self-help groups have always grappled with these issues, but have not come up with terribly satisfactory methods or approaches — they nearly all have high failure and high attrition rates.

We need to do better. Finding people to love, to make a living with, and to share our passions and purposes with, are vital, crucial human activities, and our modern, insulated, transient society complexifies the task enormously. Software alone won’t make it easy, or certain, but SNAs embedded in new processes that embrace complexity could take us a long way, and could easily become the most important uses of the Web of all.

What techniques — newfangled or old, software-assisted or not — have you found especially effective at meeting the people you want, and need, to meet and form meaningful,productive and lasting relationships with? This, I think, is the greatest challenge of Web 2.0. And its greatest promise.