History of Social Software

I very much enjoyed reading this history and analysis of social software by Darren Wershler-Henry .

– Via Clay Shirky

MySpace.com surpasses Friendster.com in web rankings

There is so much going on in the online social networking space that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. I follow the business-focused tools and communities very closely, but the more general social tools not so much, so the recent news that MySpace.com now surpasses Friendster.com in Nielsen web rankings came as a bit of a surprise.

One of the attractive features of MySpace is that it lets users totally customize their home pages, and many have done so extensively. You can even use JavaScript on your page. This, combined with their brand name, reinforces a strong sense of home page ownership by the members.

One downside: the user interface for setting up your profile is horrendous. On one page, you have to click to a separate page to edit each individual field on the page, rather than editing them all in a single form. I was truly dumbfounded by this. I also encountered several bugs uploading photos.

This is another site, like orkut and Tribe, where the boundaries between personal and business are fuzzy at best. “Networking” is one of the four options as to your reason for being on MySpace, but that question is right next to questions about your sexual preference and relationship status.

Bottom line: if you’re young, hip, and know some basic HTML, MySpace gives you far more freedom to express yourself visually than you can within the canned profile templates on most other sites. But for business purposes, the lack of boundaries make it suitable only for those who don’t care about those boundaries.

Online networking is now OFFICIALLY mainstream

Well, it’s official… online networking is now mainstream. It’s covered in USA Today. It’s the same story that ran in Forbes, and covers no major new ground, but it’s still nice to see.

Social software, productivity, and innovation

It’s a frequently-encountered belief in many mainstream businesses that tools like instant messaging and discussion forums, particularly when used for conversations outside the company, are a drain on productivity.

Not so, says John Seely Brown, former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, in a recent article in the New York Times about technology and worker efficiency:

Mr. Brown also points to the rapid development of what he calls “social software” like instant messaging, Weblogs, wikis (multi-user Weblogs) and peer-to-peer tools – all of which make it easier for workers to communicate and collaborate online, almost instantaneously.

The combined result, Mr. Brown said, is information technology that can amplify social interaction and enhance workers’ understanding of what is happening around them. The benefit, he added, could be to increase their ability to “collectively improvise and innovate.”

That is a key to productivity and peak performance, according to Mr. Brown. Business, he said, is a lot like soccer. In soccer, there are some set plays, but the best teams also display a wealth of effective improvisation based on the players’ deep knowledge of one another. “It’s the same in the best corporations or start-ups,” he said.

Social networking sites analyzed via the Value Framework™

Gary George has done an extensive analysis of the major social networking sites using Mitchell Levy’s Value Framework™, a strategic planning tool that has become popular throughout Silicon Valley through Mitch’s work with several area companies and universities.

The report lists 22 sites in this space (a few I hadn’t even heard of), and provides an analysis of nine of them:
Classmates
Ecademy
Friendster
Friendzy
Huminity
Link Silicon Valley
Linked In
Ryze
Spoke

He then categorizes them according to their product/service offerings and their market reach:

PRODUCT/ SERVICE
OFFERINGS

MARKET REACH
 
Broad
Focused
Broad

1) Classmates
Ryze

2) LinkedIn
Ecademy
Friendster
Friendzy
Focused
3) Huminity
4) Spoke
Link Silicon Valley

Personally, I think Friendster and Friendzy want to be broad in their market reach, although they have definitely attracted a certain dominant demographic. So, I question those categorizations. However, he does raise a very important and valid point in his conclusion for that product grouping:

The design and feel of these sites are all focused on their specific market. This may be a benefit or a detriment by alienating other users.

This is a point I’ve raised several times with the folks at Ecademy. It was also my immediate reaction when I heard the rumor that Friendster might be planning to expand beyond its current focus on dating.

Gary then goes on to analyze each site in terms of the strategies deployed, strategies managed, and strategies evolved. He ended up hitting upon a couple of other key points that I have observed myself: the need for LinkedIn to consider building a community among its users, and for Ryze to “be concerned about balancing its friendliness with professionalism”.

This report is very insightful, and provides a useful high-level view for people wanting to look at the trends in the industry. For the prospective member, it might help you decide which one(s) are a good fit for you, but won’t tell you much of the user experience beyond that

PC Magazine goes deep on social networking

Ziff-Davis has really jumped on the social networking bandwagon. Last week it was eWeek’s coverage of social networking for the enterprise. PC Magazine has also recently covered blog tools, wiki tools, and web conferencing tools. This week, they’ve done an in-depth special feature on public social networks, including some success stories, analysis, and reviews of several sites:
Friendster
Friendzy
LinkedIn
Ryze
Tribe.net

It’s obvious from the reviews that contributing editor Richard Dragan has spent some time on these sites, not just with their management. In the end, he concludes that the jury’s still out since most of them are still in beta mode, so you might as well try them all since they’re free. Sticking to the business-focused ones, here’s what he said in summary:

“There are some recommendations we can make. Executives should try LinkedIn. At best, it could be incredibly useful. At worst, the site guards your privacy and doesn’t waste your time. Ryze is a very strong site for business users of less exalted levels, and it’s a very mature product—the only one we reviewed that’s a full-release version.”

He does offer one additional crucial bit of advice:

“Be careful not to harangue all your friends to follow you to every site, or you may not be able to call them friends much longer.”

Are enterprises ready for social networking? Are social networking apps ready for the enterprise?

In the latest issue of eWeek, Matt Hicks asks two critical questions:
Are enterprises ready for social networking?
Are social networking vendors ready for the enterprise?

This is noteworthy because it’s the first really in-depth look that a major publication has taken at business-focused social networking applications like Spoke, Visible Path, and Zero Degrees, which are focused on the enterprise market. In particular, the article gives some insight into the product strategies of these companies. They also take a look at what enterprise customers want from social networking applications and the experience of some of the early adopters.

The top priority, of course, is ROI. As with any new technology, the mainstream is waiting to see demonstrated return on investment from the early adopters. The big pay-off is expected in the sales and business development groups, who are already heavy users of sales force automation systems. Collaborative technologies consultant Stowe Boyd, interviewed for the article, had this to say:

“There’s no place more evident than in sales that who you know is more important than what you know.”

One of the most interesting points I found raised was that the early adopters are feeling perfectly comfortable with the rejected referral requests, too:

“Almost all the business-focused networks also try to emulate real-life etiquette by requiring a user to go through their first-degree connection in order to gain a connection with more distant contacts. Spoke and Visible Path, for example, even shield the intermediary’s information, allowing that person to anonymously decline a request to make a connection without having to worry about damaging a relationship.

Tucker said that his direct connections have declined on a few occasions to pass through his requests to connect with someone, and he has opted against granting requests from users wanting to connect with him. In both cases, there were no hard feelings. The feedback from the denials often is as valuable as the potential connections, he said.”

It’s great to see this kind of coverage finally.

Inc.com says social networking sites "could fundamentally change the way people network"

In Internet Icebreakers, Inc.com’s Michael Fitzgerald takes an optimistic look at business networking technologies, claiming that “the sites could fundamentally change the way people network”. Never mind that I said this four months ago, I’m happy to see more mainstream coverage of this topic.

The most interesting thing in this story is that his real-world examples include a software company, a VC firm, and a local financial services office, not just the freelance web/graphic designers and network marketers who have been a disproportionately large share of the early adopters. Having used online networking myself for significant business development efforts at my last firm, including initiating a multi-million-dollar corporate merger on a Yahoo Group conversation, I know that it’s only a matter of time before it’s not even thought of as a separate practice—it will simply be an integral part of sales, marketing, and business development.

Red Herring touts the impending arrival of the 800-lb. gorillas in the social networking space

According to Red Herring, a pack of similar companies fight for attention, while competition from the big dogs looms.

I agree… AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, et al., will not stand idly by while the social networking startups eat away at the time users spend on the big boys’ groups and communities. However, I think this trend isn’t something that anyone — users or social networking startup executives — needs to be worried about.

In the case of full-fledged networking communities like Ryze and Ecademy, the technology may not be of much interest to the big players, but the loyal, revenue-generating member bases of tens or hundreds of thousands of users will be.

For companies with enterprise-focused, patented software, like Spoke, hopefully they’ve realized all along that ultimately, they’re just a piece of a much larger infrastructure, and not destined to be a stand-alone application forever. If they can successfully demonstrate a viable revenue model on top of their proprietary intellectual property, they’ll be prime acquisition targets, probably by the end of 2004.

But what does this all mean to the user—the networking practitioner? Right now, not much at all. The funding many of these companies have received is a good indication of continued viability for the foreseeable future. There’s a great window of opportunity right now to get in as an early adopter and build your social capital. And when the 800-lb. gorillas do finally enter the game, you really have nothing to lose. Odds are very good that these sites will get acquired, not simply disappear. And even if they did disappear, keep in mind that your investment is really in the people you connect with, not the system you use to do so.