Reinventing the address book

At a recent conference on open source software, Tim O’Reilly said that all the social software services are a hack because we haven’t really reinvented the address book.

Tim next turned his attention to social software and asked how many people in the audience had tried Orkut. Most of the audience raised their hands. He followed by asking how many people kept using Orkut and very few left their hand in the air.

Hmm… I can think of a lot of other reasons that people might lose interest in Orkut besides the fact that they haven’t yet lived up to Tim’s vision of the next-generation address book, but OK, I’ll go with it, because his next point is very valid:

The question that follows is how we build tools for creating networks and managing our contacts. These tools could end up as part of Outlook and proprietary software, or they could become a connection between Orkut and GMail. “We have to Napsterize the address book and the calendar so that we own the data about our social network but we are able to query our friends about who they know.”

We are definitely going to see a trend in this direction with projects like FOAF and SocialGrid. This will put the pressure on sites whose core technology and value is search and matching, such as LinkedIn , to enrich their offerings and provide a significant value-add beyond simple searching and initiating contact.

But in so many of the “social networking sites”, the addition of “social networking features” is incidental to just being an online community. Being able to see lists of friends and friends of friends is NOT what make sites like Ryze and Ecademy work. That’s one minor feature. Online communities, in order to thrive, have to have a clearly defined and valuable purpose, a raison d’ĂȘtre. And the evidence seems to indicate that sex, romance, and marriage are very valuable, and making business contacts is very valuable, but apparently “just making friends” isn’t.

In the case of Orkut, it can sort of work as a dating site, but it pales in comparison to, say, Tickle. And it’s not well-suited for business networking, thanks to Orkut’s non-commercial policy.

Technology doth not a successful social networking site make. Neither does an association with a major brand. A clearly-defined purpose, an environment that supports it, and a critical mass of people willing to act toward it are what will make a thriving community.