Rescuing Social Networking

Recent reports of the demise of Social Networking Applications (SNAs), voted “technology of the year” by Business 2.0 just two years ago, are increasing. Most recently C|Net’s Molly Wood reported on Five Reasons Social Networking Doesn’t Work. While LinkedIn and eCademy are hanging in there, many of the other entrants into the SNA space are really struggling. I reported last year on what I thought was wrong with the first generation of social networking applications, and I haven’t seen any significant improvements become mainstream since then.

Wood complains that existing SNAs offer the user little to do, take too much time, don’t provide a customized audience, are socially awkward, and don’t provide much that other features of the Internet don’t do as well or better. It’s not clear what problem they’re trying to solve, other than to provide a list of not-very-well qualified contacts for people online who are looking (mostly for customers, employers or dates). They remind me a lot of Chamber of Commerce meetings, with consultants and agents outnumbering ‘real’ businesspeople, five sellers for every buyer. I belong to several SNAs but use them rarely, since my blog provides me with a more robust network than any SNA could ever hope to do.

The challenge, as with most business and social problems, is getting attention. Because good stories, useful, researched advice and helpful, informative conversations command attention, these are the tools of the trade in face-to-face networking events. Face to face meetings also provide a huge amount of non-verbal information that allows people to make considered judgements and to establish trust, which virtual forums can only accomplish awkwardly, and over time.

The lowly telephone, and Skype, are an improvement. Most of us can converse iteratively faster and more competently in a voice conversation than in a message thread, and get past the awkwardness and misunderstandings faster as a result. I’ve had some excellent Skype conversations with people I have never met in person, and some ghastly ones. I have proposed a more robust, multimedia, multi-view Simple Virtual Presence (SVP) tool such as what is illustrated above. There are people more technologically competent and agile than I am who are achieving such presence using a combination of tools now, but for most of us this is still just a dream.

SNAs are therefore inherently not very good for building relationships or for collaborative work. How are they at finding people for valuable personal or business relationships? Once again we’re back to the too many sellers, too few buyers problem (it’s the same with dating services, I’m told). Useful SNAs need to be under the control of the customer, not the vendor. They would be better advised to reinvent themselves as a kind of very detailed person-to-person ‘yellow pages’, to separate users’ ‘what I have’ and ‘what I need’ personas, and to focus specifically on the former, in a lot more detail, with credentials and samples of offerings. In a way, that’s what blogs do, providing a space for one individual to exhibit as much of himself as possible in as much detail as possible, which is why many recruiters are now starting to peruse blogs in the search for extraordinary people or matches for very difficult fits. So a good SNA could offer a condensed version of this: Who I am, What I offer, Who recommends me, and Samples of what I do. Then the buyer can browse this ‘catalogue’ and, if he thinks I might have what he’s looking for (personally or professionally) he is given contact information (ideally with the richness of Simple Virtual Presence) to confirm through conversation that my offer meets his requirements. Simple as that. Forget about the discussion forums and the form-filling and all the other bells and whistles that just complicate use and chew up time. Just give me a yellow pages on steroids.

Once some standards emerge on formats for this information, it could then be possible for people to post this information anywhere, in the agreed-upon ‘SNA2’ format, so that we would no longer have to post my information to each SNA ‘yellow page’ directory — the SNA tools could go out and harvest it automatically wherever we posted it, so we would only have to maintain it once (perhaps on our blog-jacket, personal website, or other online space).

So then we would have three easy-to-use SNA tools, working in tandem, all built around the ‘customer’, the guy looking for something:

  • The standard-format ‘yellow pages’ displaying our personal ‘offerings’,
  • A Simple Virtual Presence tool to qualify those offerings and to enable powerful conversations, and
  • Blogs as ‘personal filing cabinets’ that people could browse if we were away from our phone/SVP tool, or if they wanted to see some more of our stuff before attempting to call us and offer us a job, a contract or a date.

What would really make SVP cool would be if we could meter it, so that the tool could track time we spent on each call and, with the agreement of the other party, automatically bill them and pay us for our time at an agreed-upon rate. Because it’s the value you add person-to-person, helping them in their personal context, once the introductions are over and they know they’ve found the person they want to ‘hire’, that could finally realize the promise of online commerce.

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4 Responses to Rescuing Social Networking

  1. otterhound says:

    “Just give me a yellow pages on steroids.” – We’ve had one since 1995 — the personal web site. Could be a blog, but doesn’t need to be. What we don’t have is a workable ontology of people, to facilitate searching. Whether the “semantic web” will provide that is yet to be seen. I have my doubts, because I can’t see anyone agreeing on an ontology which is any more robust than FOAF. But if an ontology of people could get traction, people could just post an RDF file on their web site and it could be spidered.

  2. medaille says:

    I’m curious about technology such as this. It fits in very well with my style of thinking. I’m not much of a programmer at all, but does anyone know how hard it would be to organize a group to make a program like through an open source type of intiative? Are there enough programmers that read this blog that would be willing to participate in such a project? The more I think about it, the more inclusive the project would seem to be and the bigger it would get. Is there a good way to organize a project like this online, so that the systems could be refined and better defined without having to bog down using email or the like?

  3. Interesting blog, Dave. You write : “The challenge, as with most business and social problems, is getting attention.” Isn’t that the whole problem? Too many people seeking attention. Turn that around, however, by focusing on “paying” attention and it’s amazing how benign the world becomes. All those micro-problems of the blogosphere and the long tail disappear and, miraculously, those whose attention you can truly benefit from, may just turn their spotlight on YOU. A bit Zen, I know, but I’ve found it works. ;-)

  4. Dave,I think we are very close to what you are talking about at We’ve created a Talent Marketplace Network focused on the client company that utilizes contract or contingent resources. We have over 1000 employers registered on HotGigs, over 2500 consulting / Staffing firms, and over 10,000 independent consultants. Each group has tools to serve their purposes but they need to serve the other groups in order to fully leverage the market.Here’s a link to an online walk-through of how is changing the staffing/social networking scene: on “Watch Demo”We took the approach from the sourcing / staffing market perspective and then moved it to the Social Network perspective.

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