Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Technology Digression

Today, I'd like to discuss the "new" phenomenon that seems to be sweeping the IT punditocracy - Social Networking. Essentially, social networking is based on the theory that a person's connections are currency of sorts. With roots in the old idea that any given person can be connected to any other given person with at most six intervening connections (the "six degrees of separation" theory), a social network can thoretically be used to find professionally or personally useful contacts, find jobs, or reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. The first wave of companies providing these services ultimately fizzled out in the dot-com bust, but a second wave of companies (Friendster, LinkedIn, Tribe.net, and their competitors) are gaining some traction. Job-hunting services like Monster.com are also building social networking sites, and even Google is getting into the fray.

In my own six degrees of separation story, Andrew Weinrich, the founder of the original sixdegrees.com is connected to me this way: Andrew's father is my dad's friend and longtime attorney. I think that's either two or three degrees. I'm not conversant enough in the theory to tell.

Anyhow, what I'm not certain about is the utility of social networking. For instance, there's a couple of hundred people (based on my e-mail and stats analysis) who read this blog on a semi-regular basis. I guess an argument could be made that I connect those people through a shared interest - my puerile ramblings. Were I, however, to try and build a network out of all of you, it would require something I'm not at all sure posess - the interest level to sustain said network (assuming you all wanted in).

I'm not trying to just bash the concept, though. There may be a good use there, especially within more specialized circles - for instance, the About page for LinkedIn describes how the founder was looking for a Flash designer, and after all the searching finally found one who happened to wander into the office to visit his friend in the next cube. Had all three been members of the same network, the designer would have been found much quicker.

That's a cute story, and an object lesson in what social networks can deliver. But imagine this. Let's say that the two cubemates were both members of a social network - but not the same one. Now the model breaks down to a degree (well, it actually breaks down entirely, but I'm being generous). It appears to me that all it takes is one break to ruin the utility of the network. Which is, of course, a problem.

Then there's the trust factor. As Adam Gaffin puts in this week's Compendium (this link is partially broken - scroll down to the 1/20 article for now), he just got what is essentially his first LinkedIn spam this past week. A financial advisor e-mailed him out of the blue. To Adam, that's spam - while to the planner, it's probably just an attempt to actually use the connections he sees in his network. Just because you're connected doesn't mean people want to hear from you.

And finally, the big question: How does a business make money from this? To paraphrase one of the canonical Slashdot comments, the business plan for social networking companies looks something like this:

Step 1: Hire workers to build website, purchase infrastructure.
Step 2: Open website, invite people to join for free.
Step 3: ??????
Step 4: Profit!

Call me a cynic, but I just don't see it.

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