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Social Networking is Broken

This slightly facetious statement: "My social networks are broken... at least I think they are." reflects my conclusion that the social networks I've been playing in are for the most part associative networks. While they have a social element the socializing for the most part takes place by blogs, forums, IM / e-mail, phone and in face to face visits.

After 18 months of experimenting with formalizing relationship structures through Ryze, Orkut Linkedin etc they are really no more useful to me now than before I found them. Oh Orkut is a wonderful place for assembling connections but recently they really suck. Here I am with all these friends and they expect me to recategorize them. Would you try demoting your friends? Try it - see how they like it.

So how broken are they? Well which one should I turn to if I want to contact someone through one of them? If they are on more than one, which messaging system should I use? The newest? The one I contacted them on last time?

So now I have these planetary social networks each with their own orbits spread across the heavens. So while I've visited all these places I can't remember the name of the ship that offloaded me last. That's about as damming conclusion as any user (dare I say consumer) of the SN product can draw. However, lets face facts. For the most part none of these social networks are on my desktop, unless I happen to have their page open. And then with the exceptions of Ecademy, Tribe and Flickr they don't let me know whether any of my friends are online or not. As most of the people I really work with either don't use them or are as sporadic as me I still little chance of finding spontaneity within. They all fail for none of them provide the things I really need.

I saw a post from Stowe Boyd today, planning a review of enterprise social networking services. It made me curious. The dating ones are excluded. For that matter so is MSN, Yahoo, AIM etc from the list. Skype too isn't included. Some little "scream" at the back of my mind tells me that the bundle of failing social networking services listed in Stowe's may not get to the heart of solving the enterprise problem. He wrote up Xfire just days ago. I made an association with Skype on it yesterday. No it is not enterprise ready. But others have the conferencing linking capability. I also tried to get my 15 year old son using Xfire. He discarded it in seconds, "I can do this stuff already" --- not as neatly I respond, "does it have voice?" --- nope, basically end of discussion. Maybe it is only about associating people. However I hope these services will offer something more. For if that is all they are there will be an upcoming backlash.

For the life of me... When is IM not a social networking device? (Have you ever seen a 12 year old girl reconnect her buddies after taking a new name?) That looks like social networking to me. When are introductions by e-mail not social networking. Or a speakerphone call? It's time to put a stop to categorizing these "things" as social networks. Call them "Associative Networking Tools" or "Structured Association Tools" or something similar. Then you can create a bucket for them. The reason there is no real business model is they are just part of / or component towards building our capabilities to enhance "presence" and connectivity. Most of the friends I network with in this realm also have IM. But step outside and look at the real world and usage is sporadic at best. If we can't get our friends to adopt one of three messaging systems how can we hope to get them to adopt one of one hundred social networking services? Via Dina this comment from Jenny Levine sums it up.

It's time to refocus the debate and bring in new functionalities and capabilities. For me that integrates with mobility. There's a program which I don't expect to take off any time soon for Nokia 3650' called Pmatch. pMatch allows 3650 owners to learn of others with similar interests or information, without revealing their own personal, private data. In a similar vein Trepia or AirCQ are using proximity and presence to enhance connections. I know not everyone can make the list. Judith had a list of 100. A readable report can't cover them all.

What have we learned.

  • We don't socialize rather only associate through the Orkuts while we socialize using messaging, telephone and face to face visits.
  • The opportunity to connecting through friends is much greater than generally understoood. Some successes have been achieved.
  • Virtual connections mean managing ones connections and presence has never been more important.
  • Structured services are creating problems where there were none before. From categories to access. And designating "artificial" forced levels of buddies or friendship.
  • Fragmenting association systems does not enable better connections.
  • Integration on to my desktop (address book / IM systems) at minimum and preferably into my cellphone is required for there are few you can synch with and while one can upload addresses you can seldom download.
  • The sites themselves are seldom responsible for the association, the connective knowledge is broader than the networking sites. eg blogs, blogrolls, online forums etc.

    Judith Meskill has been encouraging me to dive into her posts on autonomic networks. This wonderful post has some great questions, and left me with the question at the beginning of the post.

    If you utilize one or more of the current entrants in this swell of online SNS offerings [such as LinkedIn, Friendster, Orkut, Ryze, and/or Tribe] - what value, if any, do you derive from them? And, harkening back to the citation with which I started this post, has one [or more] of these services assisted in helping you to successfully reduce the 'traffic congestion' at the 'intersections' in your life? And, in closing, any insights, comments, or ponderings on the recent and future blurring of lines between 'wetware,' 'software,' and 'hardware' in an infinitely connected wireless world?
    Judith Meskill

    I see this morning that Heath Row is reporting on a discussion of "The Asthetics of Social Networking" at SXSW. Read Molly Steenson's comments. They may just jell with the above.

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    Comments (8)


    This is the BEST and most honest synospis of social networking 'slockware' that I have read.


    Bill Anderson:

    Stuart, I couldn't agree more. For me the "presence" aspects available in the IM tools (I now include Skype) is more interesting to me and easily integrated with my work than logging in to websites. And being able to manage information about presence in distributed work groups is even more interesting and potentially useful.


    Right on !

    These systems fail because they try to apply technology where sociology is needed -- they are not substitutable.

    I'd like to see ICQ/MSN/Skype add a feature whereby I can make my buddy list browsable by my contacts, and their contacts, ad infinitum.

    *That* would be cool.

    A message could pop-up and say "New message from Sacha's Friend XYZ -- Accept?"

    "dare I say consumer"

    You dare say it and you should. Isn't one of the greatest problems here that we have business trying to "own" your social network? For me open standards and open systems that allow us to move freely from network to network based on our relationships and interests are the only "social" option.

    We have an open source project running in which we aim to do this. I woudl welcome any feedback anyone has on it.


    The usefulness of social networking sites is (and should be) measured in how useful they are in solving some of real life's "connecting" problems.

    For example...I might be able to hire, be hired, sell to, buy from, or date a friend of a friend in real life, but I might not know that unless I do a couple of things in real life:

    1. make it known via email/phone/IM to my friends that I am even IN a position to be (selling/buying/hiring/hired/dating) in a flurry of unorganized communications that require all of my friends to participate.

    2. follow up on all of those communications and follow each potential thread thru my friends.

    with friendster, orkut, tribe, etc. I can now find people who might be in a position to do those real-life things, but not have to bother or depend on any of my 1st or 2nd degree friends to facilitate that communication.

    And I would still (as in real life) hire, date, sell to, buy from, a friend of a friend, instead of Joe Random from craigslist.

    Why is this concept so hard to understand ? Because people are thinking about the usefulness of Social Networking within the boundaries of the WEB, and not real life. The value comes from doing things outside the Internet, not waiting for the tool to do things for you.

    It's like asking a hammer to build a house for you without driving any nails. Think, people, think ! :)


    broken, yes. useful, depends. social social networking sites are just a warm-up of IM, communities and the failed sixdegrees. professional social networking are much more useful. i'm on linkedin. it's not fun like IM, but it sure is useful. i've gotten several contracts from referrals. it's not surprising since that is how i get my business offline. it works. i agree that it's not for the enterprise though--people find ways to game it if it's pushed on them as the latest fad and productivity enhancer.

    Your analysis of the first generation social networking sites is excellent. But you should check out what Multiply is doing.

    Whenever a Multiply user posts a new photo album, blog entry, recipe, or movie review it sends a message to their close friends, their family...or their whole network if they desire...and this message is the first post of a threaded discussion. The result: socializing.

    Unlike a book review on Amazon, a book review added by a Multiply user becomes a discussion about the book, the other books by the author, and perhaps trusted recommendations for other books. Trusted because you know your relationship, even if extended, with the others in the discussion.

    Unlike an album on Ofoto, a new album of a vacation trip on Multiply becomes a discussion about the vacation, with others reminiscing about their trip to that spot, and perhaps advice for somebody that chimed in that they were thinking of going there.

    Multiply's users are asking each other for advice, consoling each other in times of need, and keeping in touch with people they care about. The conversations are very interesting because a user might not *know* everybody in the conversation. But they are also intimate and open because the connections are listed with well documented labels (e.g. "Larry is your brother John's coworker") as opposed to the generic "friend" or "contact" prevalent on other sites.

    Multiply is a great example of how social networking can be very helpful to people that aren't necessarily interested in meeting new people.

    My Furl


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