The Next Generation of Contact Management Software

David had a chance to have a conversation with Greg Head, ACT!’s former General Manager, about the need for increased privacy, interoperability, and personal responsibility as contact management and social networking software converge:

Contact management software will always be centered around a database of contact information that tracks basic name, addresses, and other data — combined with powerful methods of managing countless commitments and a history of all relationships. That said, we will be doing more contact management activities using an Internet browser or PDA phone, as opposed to just Windows applications. These new methods will allow more integration to the phone and to Web services that can integrate into contact managers — to scrub addresses, to integrate with accounting applications, or to share your relationship data with others.

Head also had some thoughts about Microsoft’s role in the social networking space, as well as centralized directory services like Plaxo:

I may be a little biased in this regard, but I think that Microsoft will have to make some fundamental changes to develop the level of trust that is required for people to track, share, and leverage social network information in a Microsoft-hosted world. In fact, even centralized public directory services such as Plaxo might not be able to meet every users’ needs because of concerns with privacy and inconvenience. These services might be useful for the user — but are not so useful for the recipient of the “update your contact information” request. As the centralized nature of some of these become known, people will be even more reluctant to send their contact data off across the Internet.

Ultimately, though, Head says it’s more about personal responsibility and process as the tools themselves:

The majority of salespeople and businesspeople are still fighting the first phase of this battle: just tracking all of their follow-up and project commitments in a reliable system. Contact managers provide the tools, but the habit of tracking all commitments and managing them effectively can be different for each person.

I give you these ten, woops, six commandments!

Stowe Boyd makes a start at The Ten Commandments of Social Networking:

  1. Social networking applications [SNAs] shall provide explicit and easily used opt-out features; specifically, every message sent by a social networking application on behalf of users, as marketing, or for whatever purpose shall provide a mechanism for complete opt-out, as well as a means to opt-out by email and at the SNA website.
  2. SNAs shall not send messages to any user’s contacts without the explicit consent of the user, and without first displaying both the list of contacts to which the message is to be directed, as well as the complete content of the message.
  3. SNAs shall not expose any user’s contact information or the information associated with the user’s contacts to anyone other than the user without the explicit permission of the user.
  4. SNAs shall prohibit unsolicited commercial messages through their systems, and should bar or block users that try to send such messages.
  5. SNAs shall provide means so that users can block messages from specific users.
  6. SNAs shall provide users an “unlisted” capability, so that their use of the system can be undiscoverable if they wish.

Let’s help him come up with four more! My contribution:

7. SNAs shall not make it easy to do things that are a really bad idea — socially inept, if not downright illegal.

For example, it’s a really, really bad idea to send the exact same canned invitation to your entire contact list. SNAs think they’re making it easier on their members to invite more people, but there’s an unintended consequence of creating social ill-will both for their members who do that and for the sites themselves.

I contend it’s a really, really bad idea to send almost ANY message — commercial or otherwise — to all your friends of friends.

I know some prefer the Darwinian approach — those with poor practices will simply not succeed. The only problem is, there’s no disincentive. There’s little or no negative feedback for them, at least in most SNAs. They simply don’t get results, and you have to hope that they eventually tire of a lack of results and leave. In the meantime, the rest of us have to wade through all the noise.

I tend to take a fairly libertarian approach — let people do what they want — minimal restrictions. But you still don’t hand them a loaded shotgun (e.g., the ability to send a generic mail to everyone they’ve ever met electronically). Bad idea.

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’être. 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.

Angel investing opportunities in social network software

As part of a recent article Scott Allen and I wrote for Worth magazine, we did some research on angel investing opportunities in social network software. Although some of the hype around the social network arena has (fortunately) abated, there are a number of areas in the social software industry where we still see significant investing opportunities.

Some ideas follow:

* Companies that reengineer traditional business processes using social software. Accolo has created a unique technology to accelerate the recruiting process. Eloqua uses social software to make companies’ sales and marketing efforts more efficient. In particular, they help you figure out how to meet the right potential customers, and who they are. (My company, Nitron Advisors, is also an example of this trend. We are reengineering the traditional independent research process. )

* Identity management. FOAF (“Friend of a Friend”) is an open source personal identity management protocol which allows you to manage your identity and your relationships on multiple social networks. Broadband Mechanics is working on technology to help people in this area.

* Using “peer-to-peer” instead of centralized networks. Confidentiality is a major concern in social network systems because the user’s personal data is typically uploaded to a central location. WiredReach is in trials with a decentralized model that keeps the information protected on customers’ individual PCs.

* Blogging tools. Six Apart and LiveJournal are among the companies designing software that makes it easier for non-technical people to create a blog.

* Foreign-language versions of the successful business models. Social software is becoming prominent in the US but is just beginning to catch on abroad. Now may be the time to consider investing in such companies as OpenBC, which is comparable to Ecademy but available in English, German, and Spanish. eConozco.com is a Spanish-language site similar to LinkedIn.

Monetizing social networking

Mark Rogers describes what he says as the core difficulty in monetizing social networking online.

Really what they are selling is a service as a trusted third party, like eBay.

eBay derives revenue from the fact that it is itself a marketplace and can levy a percentage of every transaction for the trust it brokers. The problem that the social networks have is that there is no underlying financial transaction that they can take a percentage of.

As he points out, you can charge for advertising, like Tribe, or even create a B2B marketplace, as Ecademy has done, but those have their drawbacks, too.

But the closed nature of these networks militates against success in applying this business model. If I am advertising I want to reach the widest possible market, not just an audience of people who belong to my extended social network.

Mark raises some valid points. However, there are underlying financial transactions—it’s just that they’re not brokered by the system. Charging for a social networking service is going to require people to look at longer-term ROI, rather than immediate transactional satisfaction.

But the transactions are there. In an informal survey I took of about 125 active Ryze users a few months ago, about 40% reported having had some sort of profitable transaction with someone met on Ryze. And it just doesn’t take much of a transaction to justify $10 a month or so. If the transactions aren’t there, then I’m inclined to say that it has more to do with how one is using the system than with the system itself.

Networking isn’t an instant-gratification activity, at least not from a purely financial point of view; it’s an investment. Let’s hope that those who are forward-thinking enough to be interested in networking in the first place also have the sense to recognize the fees for these services for what they are: an investment, albeit a relatively small one.

Synchronicity and the Web

Flemming Funch discusses how the Internet may in the future enhance synchronicity. The technology for what he proposes exists today — it just hasn’t been applied to this space. One could potentially see tremendous benefits if this were implemented within social networks, but the potential abuse by unscrupulous marketers and overly invasive governments is high, as well.

Informaton on Social Networking going Mobile

Mobile phone users on UCLA campus are experimenting with SmallPlanet’s new CrowdSurfer technology, a social networking system that transmits relationship information up to 100 feet away using Bluetooth radio signals.

“This is going to change sociology forever,” says Vic Downing, President of the strategic advisory firm Global Advantage, Inc. The application goes well beyond the online friend of friend networking popularized by sites like Friendster and Google’s Orkut.com according to SmallPlanet CEO Hunter Heaney.

Dodgeball, which offers similar functionality, but based on different technology, has been live for a couple of months.

Mobile Social Presence: Who Knows Who's Where Now?

Mobile Social Presence : Who Knows Who’s Where Now?

“When social networking, mobile telephony and locative media collide on the small screen, something altogether surprising will emerge, the way virtual communities, online markets and self-organized dating services emerged from wired cyberspace. ”

This whole discussion is very thought-provoking.

(via Raindrop)