Archives for 1/31/2004

Social Networking Talk at San Francisco's University Club – February 12, 2004

This looks like a great panel discussion. Rather than talking about the business models (or lack thereof) behind social networking software, here’s an event that’s finally focusing on the new role of social networking tools in the business enterprise.

Here’s the info:

CAFE – Current Affairs, Foreign Events Presents:
Social Networking Technology: Connecting to Opportunities – Making the Most of Who You Know

Thursday, February 12, 2004
The University Club of San Francisco

Moderator:
John Neeson, Co-founder, SiriusDecisions
Panelists:
Chris Tolles, VP Marketing, Spoke
Jas Dhillon, CEO, ZeroDegrees
Mark Pincus, CEO, Tribe
Jeff Loomans, Venture Partner, Sierra Ventures

Time:
6:30 – 7:15pm Cocktails & Hors D’Oeuvres
7:15 – 8:30pm Discussion
8:30 – 9:00pm Networking

Where:
The University Club, 3rd Floor
800 Powell Street, San Francisco
www.univclub.com

Dress: Business dress, coat required
Cost: $12 per person
Registration: reservations@univclub.com or call 415.781.0900

Synopsis:
While the economy in Silicon Valley and the rest of the US is beginning to heat up, getting to customers and opportunities remains a huge challenge. A set of innovative companies is addressing the issue of how to use the relationships you already have to accelerate business. With applications that connect people to opportunities through relationships, these companies aim to help users and companies with the age-old problem of putting “who knows whom” into the business process.

Business 2.0 recently named Social Networking the Technology of the Year, and between the recent spate of funding these companies have recently attracted from the VC community, to the buzz that has emerged in the press, it is clear that what’s going on here has captured the interest of the market.

This panel will examine the questions that follow this interest, mainly:
How can these products help people connect to opportunities better?
How can these products help to accelerate and improve upon existing business processes?

Topics that will be addressed include:
What is driving activity, interest and funding around this space?
What can these products do for business?
How do these products fit into how business is done today?

Orkut vs. other social networks

Stuart Henshall comments on Orkut’s rapid growth compared to other social networks:

Orkut bridges the gap between Ryze (too open) and Linkedin (too closed) without the “everything is for sale” on Tribe. I suspect that those with “Friendster” experience also see it as providing extra functionality.

While I think the comparisons are accurate, the “toos” need to be considered in context. Ryze is not too open for those trying to dramatically increase their visibility to a large audience. LinkedIn isn’t too closed if you’re a busy executive/professional only wanting to make focused contacts. And what’s wrong with the “everything is for sale” aspect of Tribe? At least it seems to help keep the discussion forums themselves free from advertising, because there’s an appropriate place for it.

Always consider context when making value judgments. When deciding on a social networking tool, the question is not, “Which one is best?”, but rather, “Which ones are best for me?”

Blogs enter the business enterprise

Computerworld’s recent article, Blogs Bubble Into Business tells how “Weblogs began as a personal communications medium, but they’re moving into corporations as tools for collaboration and knowledge management.”

While document management systems and discussion forums have been available in enterprise portal, blogging offers unprecedented ease of implementation for the company and ease of use for the users. Further, the simplicity and low cost of implementation, according to Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield, allows bottom-up adoption of the technology:

“…a single worker sets up a work space for his workgroup. The group then goes on to build a business case for how blogging is adding value just on that small scale.”

Somehow, this whole thing makes me think of…

“Blogs… They’re not just for bloggers any more.”

Blogs as social software and social networks

Dina Mehta says, “My blog is my Social Software and my Social Network“. Many bloggers, including Lilia Efimova, seem to share this feeling. Dina cites the richness of content of a blog compared to a profile pages on a networking cite as the primary reason. She also points to the various back-end tools that allow her to carry on an extended, public conversation with other bloggers.

Lilia sees a balance between the two, appreciating the immediacy of information that a profile on a social networking site provides, but also the depth that comes from reading someone’s blog. She summarizes it by saying:

I’m thinking about YASNs and weblogs in terms of contact management (knowing whom and how you can reach) and relation management (knowing why you do it and why they would react). For networking you need both…

I, too, appreciate the role of both. I do, though, see some limitations to blogging, particularly for the impending mass of mainstream users:

  • While blogging itself is fairly accessible, many of the back-end tools that allow that connectivity are not. Every new blogger will most surely end up pinging weblogs.com and blo.gs, but how many will learn how to properly use Blog Network, or set up different categories in their blog to ping the proper categories at Topic Exchange? The basics of posting and linking are easy enough, but the stuff that enables blogs to be really useful as social networking tools are still somewhat exclusive to the digerati.
  • Blog conversations are NOT egalitarian, as has been discussed recently by Joi Ito, Clay Shirky, Marko Ahtisaari, et al. I’m not saying that’s “wrong”, or “bad”, just “inaccessible” for most users, compared to the openness of a discussion forum or mailing list. With blogging, you simply have to work a lot harder to be heard by anybody.
  • Reading and writing blogs can be enormously time consuming. I appreciate the rich picture I can get of someone from reading their blog, but do I really want to do that with every single person I meet? It’s completely impractical. As we point out in our book, The 5 Keys to Building Business Relationships Online, the number of people in your network and the average strength of your relationships with them are inversely proportional, constrained by the time one is willing to spend building relationships. Furthermore, different people need different balances between numbers and strength of relationship. Someone selling $15 e-books needs more people at a much lower strength of relationship than someone selling $150,000 enterprise software. Blogs are great to have there to provide the depth when wanted/needed, but they’re not as useful as a purely exploratory tool.

Bottom line: I, too, see the role both can play in building a rich and diverse social network. If you’re primarily interested in deep, long-term relationships, then your blog should be your focal point, and the profiles in the various social networking sites merely additional points of presence to invite people into the richer communication of your blog. On the other hand, if your needs are more towards a broad visibility, not just among the blogging technorati, then less frequent blog posting and more time spent in group discussion in the social networks is a better strategy. If your relationship needs are far more focused, i.e., wanting to meet people, or people in specific roles at specific companies, then business-oriented social networking sites, not blogs, are the place to do that.

They can all be part of the mix, but the portion of your time and energy spent in each platform should be aligned with what your objectives are for social networking.

High expectations of social networking sites

A number of people, including Ton Zijlstra, Earl Mardle, and Martin Roell have written about the “failing” of social networking sites, Orkut in particular, to represent relationships between people in a meaningful way. They say that the sites are not doing this effectively because they are gathering insufficient information—a simple designation of “friend” or “connection” (Ryze/LinkedIn), a binary “good” rating (Ecademy), a slightly more granular variation on ratings (Orkut), etc., and call for the social networking sites to capture more meaningful things, like whether or not you’ve met the person face-to-face.

I’ll get to the face-to-face point in a later post, but first, let’s talk about our expectations of social networking sites. Marc Canter starts down the right path when he says, “Trying to lock everything into a black or white – “friend” or not – is the root of the problem (IMHO.)” From there, he goes into an explanation of how PeopleAggregator solves the problem with additional levels of granularity, ranging from “Know In Passing” to “Close Friend”.

I don’t argue that this is an improvement, and I’m glad to see it. My question is this… are we really going to make use of this information? And if we do, is it alone sufficient to be actionable? In other words, is it really useful? Interesting, yes, but useful?

I’m not going to do business with someone just because they’re someone’s “close friend”. I want an introduction or an endorsement. If someone approaches me directly, claiming a relationship with someone as a basis for trust with me, before I even consider any business with them, I’m going to actually communicate with the common connection.

I find the exploration of reputation systems an intriguing intellectual exercise, and I can see the need for them in communities where relationships are not developed and maintained, i.e., the transactions are short and clearly defined—eBay, Amazon, Elance, etc. But that’s not the case in a social networking community, or, at least I believe it shouldn’t be.

On Elance, I might narrow the field of web designers based upon their reputation, but on Ryze, I’m going to choose based on the recommendation of one person I trust. On Amazon, among several books on network science, I might pick the one with the most stars. But I’d probably rather contact Joi Ito and see which one he recommends. I could list some domains for sale on eBay, or I could contact some people I know on Ecademy who might be interested, and sell them to them (I did).

So to me, the most useful, actionable information will never be someone’s abstract “reputation” rating, or the list of someone’s “friends”, but specific, detailed endorsements and personal referrals and introductions.

I think we are simply putting too much emphasis on the technology in these sites, and not enough on the human aspects. The best relationship building takes place when people actually communicate, rather than attempting to objectify each other. Just because the medium is digital doesn’t mean that our relationships have to be quantified.

Follow-up:

Great article from Terri Senft: Against Reputation, plus commentaryon it from Clay Shirky.