Friday, March 06, 2009

Why Social Networking?

A lot of people don't use facebook but do have an email address.

This posting started as a reply to a facebook wall posting by a family member. It's only fitting. The particular family member is not on facebook. The wall posting was by another facebook network contact who was wishing me happy birthday and relaying news from a relative who was not on facebook. I pass messages through them instead of via email. I started thinking "Why don't I just email that relative who's not on facebook?".

Out of those thoughts the relevance of what's happening today surrounding social networking worked their way to the surface. This posting describes what I see as a paradigm shift in communication. Things are changing and as usual lots of people are not completely sold on the "new" way of doing something.

In this particular case, I explained to my family member (through the other family member) that they could only avoid facebook for a while -- but that it's now like an email address was in the past. I can remember this easily -- there was a time when I was one of a only few people on the planet that had a working email address. I would say to people:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "What's an email address?"

---- A year or so Later:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "I don't do that yet. My wife/son/brother/boss/co-worker/strangers-on-the-street keeps saying I need to do that, but I don't see-the-value/have-the-time/want-to-etc"

--- A year or so later:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "Oh, hey, I'm getting AOL soon. I send you a post card with it!"

--- And so on.

Facebook/Linkedin/Twitter -- social networking -- is like that today. The conversations are very similar. The time-frame, however, is compressed (see the book "Future Shock", written in 1970 for what it's worth, on the subject of time compression).

It sounds funny to debate needing something like email in your life until you realize how much we can't get by without it. Some people argue with me here -- social networking is still somewhat optional in their eyes and will be pretty much forever.

My perspective forces me to disagree. I was an early adopter of the Internet. I was managing high volume web sites in 1999 -- interactive news where the readers were posting comments on stories (I had to write a lot of that code -- very hairy stuff). I witnessed the birth of google -- no one searches the internet these days -- they "Google".

Yeah, Google is optional -- you can still search the internet other ways -- Microsoft's new search engine is going to kill Google! And we're all going to be driving flying cars in hell through a snowstorm at that time...

Social networking is to email what Google is to the old search engines (the ones that returned a thousand unusable hits). They (the old engines) simply matched strings of text with their results. The results were mildly relevant and there was a lot of time wasted slogging through pages of stuff that was often utter garbage. Along came Google, which ranked the page by relevance -- it added a value to the hit ranking that was based upon how many times a page was referenced by another page.

The thing that Google added was context. Pages being searched prior to Google were not valuable because context was not factored into the results equation. Similar value is added when you post a message on FaceBook -- sure, you could send an email message to a friend, but posting a status update on facebook adds context. It's now a message in the context of your network, instead of spam.

I know some of you are laughing disagreeably with me here, but bear with me...

Like those old search engines, email is pretty much single-threaded. It has one or two targets, unless its one of those annoying forwards, which is a separate subject altogether. Email tends to arrive in your inbox, and get processed for whatever its worth, and then archived. Social networking posts (like wall postings on facebook) are very similar to email to a group email listing. Except that the context is managed by the interface. Your social group of friends can opt to read what you're up to (or ignore it). And thanks to the way that the networking algorithms work, it's amazingly easy to find people that want to be in your circle of friends (or have been in the past -- again, another subject altogether).

Social networking has supplanted email. By bringing others into the conversation things have a completely different relevance. We all feel a lot more connected than we used to be (Because we are).

The ability to post photos, to send little gifts and so on, that's all icing on the cake -- or cruft -- I'm not into turning facebook into a gaming interface anytime soon, for example. The core functionality that facebook has brought to the table is the ability to easily add social context to conversation. Email can't easily do this. Blog postings can't easily do this.

On a similar front, Linkedin is doing the same for professional networking. It's not quite there yet, but I'd argue that Linkedin is the new resume. The old resume just told people what you had done. The new one says "Oh, and hey, I did it with these people." And because you did it with "those people", the odds of a recruiter finding your talents because they were looking at one of those people's networks -- those odds are much higher than before Linkedin. Before, a recruiter had your resume and it was -- like a dead-ended email -- just your resume, targeted at just you, with no social context.

And it helps, even if you're not looking for a job (another subject for another day). Suffice to say that I pay a lot of heed to my LinkedIn profile, because it helps attract talented people to work where I work and solve the kind of cool, impossible, fun stuff that I get to solve. I can't do it alone, just like NASA can't build the space shuttle with one brilliant engineer, the stuff I'm into these days is far beyond anything I can hope to accomplish as a single-threaded human on this planet.

I'll leave this subject here for now -- I'm sure I'll be back again though.

Social networking is changing everything. It's adding relevance and bringing people together. I suspect that the economic down-turn will push even more people into this space, more out of need than out of want. I can see it pretty clearly; There will come a point where a facebook profile is as ubiquitous as an email address.

1 comment:

littlenanatj said...

I actually understood what you said and agreed with you 100%. It is lots easier to leave messages than to e-mail. Plus you can catch up with others at the same time.