The social network is a buzzword that every Web 2.0 company has to include in their pitch. But what is it? Does social networking matter, or is it just a bunch of hype?
Here’s my brief, unobjective primer to social networks.
When explaining knowledge management to people, I usually tell them that it’s really nothing new. We have been sharing knowledge for ages, both on a personal level and with larger groups of people. At work, you ask a co-worker a question, and they share an answer. The tacit knowledge of one employee is transferred to another in that social transaction.
Likewise, social networks are not anything new. We all have our own personal networks, subconsciously tagged as family, friends, co-workers, business associates and so on.
Wikipedia describes a social network as “…a social structure made of nodes which are generally individuals or organizations. It indicates the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds.”
So if social networking is nothing new, what’s all the fuss about?
The popularity of so-called social networking sites like MySpace and LinkedIn have captured the attention of the media. These sites generally revolve around the ability for members to setup a personal profile, and identify connections with other members.
In it’s simplest implementation, MySpace is merely a reflection of pre-existing social network structures. A teenager and his friends join, setup profiles, and add each other to their “friends” list. They already know each other. In this case, the virtual network is a mirror image of their real world network of friends.
The virtual networks make it easier to forge new connections, though the tensile strength of those connections is generally much weaker than real world connections. On MySpace, it’s not uncommon to find people who are looking to add everyone and anyone who will accept them as a friend, sometimes generating tens of thousands of friends. Naturally these are not real friends, and the connection can’t really be considered a relationship.
It’s not always vaccuous. Just as in the real world, people are also creating new relationships through these virtual social networks. Sites like Flickr and Last.fm encourage this by showing other members and giving you an opportunity to meet someone whose photography catches your eye, or who has a similar taste in music. These relationships begin much like the old pen-pal relationships I remember from grade school. They begin as virtual communication, and sometimes extend into the real world.
I have a friend who used to spend a lot of time online, communicating with people all over the world via instant messaging. Her network of friends was vast, but tenuous. Eventually, she chose to pull back from the online network and focus on the people she sees face-to-face (which includes some people that she initially met online at one time).I can understand and respect that choice. The tenuous nature of online-only relationships can be shallow and unfulfilling. People are wired for more than cerebral interaction; like Peter Gabriel said “I need contact!“
Personally, I’ve made a number of new friends online, through discussion forums such as BigBlueBall, shared interest sites like Flickr and even sites like MySpace. Most of them I’ve never met, and I only know them through our online interaction (and their online personae). Some of them I correspond with regularly via instant messaging or voice chat. A few (about seven, so far) I have met ‘IRL’ (in real life), further strengthening the connection.
Some people may find it strange to make friends online, but it’s not much different from meeting new friends in your community. You participate in an activity with other people (going to church; playing tennis; playing World of Warcraft; exploring Second Life). In the process, you meet some people that you get along with, and a friendship begins.
So what does this mean for online social networks, particularly in the context of Web 2.0 and beyond?
- For networks to have meaning, they must be limited to real relationships. Flickr may have recognized this when they recently put a limit on the number of contacts you can have.
- Online communities can foster genuine relationships that exist purely online, but they must be based on common ground. LinkedIn, which focuses on professional networking, recognizes this. You cannot add someone without knowing them, or at least sharing a friend in common.
- Friend whoring devalues the network. For long term success, communities need to find ways to discourage this behavior and encourage real relationships.
- Stronger connections are enabled by richer contact experience. Real world relationships generally have the highest likelihood of developing a strong bond, but technologies such as VoIP and webcams can help strengthen online relationships.
- We need strong, deep relationships as well as casual friendships more typical of online communities.
My fortune cookie encourages me to expand my social network. It’s good advice, but I’d like to hear from you. How do you recommend I expand my social circle?