I‘m delighted to be a keynote speaker at the Online Information 2006 conference in London, England later this fall, thanks to an invite from KM guru David Gurteen. My task is to brief the audience on the history of social networking and then bring them up to date with the latest thinking on the subject, and the newest and most promising social networking applications. It should be a great event and I’m looking forward to meeting in person some of the KM thought leaders on the other side of the Atlantic that I have corresponded with over the past few years.
I thought it might be worthwhile, as preparation for this, to blog about some of my personal emerging thoughts on the subject of social networking. This will be the first of a series of posts on this subject.
The mindmap above is a rough taskonomy of social network applications (SNAs) I developed last year. Since then, I’ve been monitoring new applications and their success and (more often) failure. A lot of the applications that have been developed seem to be solutions in search of a problem — simple to develop, kind of interesting, but ultimately, in the cornucopia of sites and applications out there, not terribly urgent or valuable, and ultimately lost in the shuffle.
What is social networking trying to do? Most of the applications so far offer one or more of the eight features or functionalities shown in blue on the mindmap above:
MySpace, for example, arguably the most successful SNA so far, is focused on passively helping people find other people (you put yourself out there, and the people you’re hoping to find, for the most part, find you, in contrast to LinkedIn, for example, where you can actively search and connect with people with particular skills, backgrounds, or interests). MySpace and most other SNAs also have some Knowledge Management (KM) functionality — you can share your stuff with others, search for others’ stuff (now often using your trusted network’s recommendations to filter your searches), and do some focused research.
In a previous article, I nominated the following as the ten most successful SNAs to date:
Since then, three new variations on SNAs have caught my (and others’) attention:
There has also been a proliferation of multimedia SNAs, of the YouTube variety.
Mashups, add-ons and other amplifications and combinations of SNA have arguably widened the digital divide even further. Using many of them requires a certain level of comfort and familiarity with basic SNAs. For the majority who go online just for e-mail and rudimentary Google searches, these apps are too technical and too sophisticated. But because combining and adding functionality to SNAs is so easy, there is a blizzard of new such apps each month, and the digital divide grows even wider as a result.
In the meantime, dissatisfaction with these applications remains high, on both sides of the divide. In my previous article, I outlined ten drawbacks and failings of most current SNAs, which might explain this dissatisfaction:
The current generation of SNAs are used principally for recreational purposes. This may be a reflection of the failings above, and the fact that these apps are not yet robust enough to be ready for heavy-duty business use. Beyond the above frustrations, playing around with some of these apps is fun, and that, combined with our deep-seated need for social interaction, and the increasing isolation of our Western culture, accounts for the immense popularity of many of these applications — even though they really don’t work very well.
If these apps are to achieve use and value beyond fun and novelty, however, they need to become more effective, and they need to address real, urgent, important needs and problems. I would suggest there are at least four urgent needs/problems that SNAs could, and hopefully will, fulfil:
Existing SNAs are not very good at doing any of these things, and they’re hopelessly complicated and unintuitive for most people trying to do these things. But if we were to be honest, most of us would have to admit that we’re not very good at doing any of things in any case, with or without technology. For many if not most of us, finding people to love. finding people to make a living with (or at least do meaningful work for), and finding people who share our life’s passion and purpose, is at best a hit-and-miss, serendipitous process.
The non-people-finding apps above should not be problematic. Virtual collaboration tools developed to date are unintuitive and over-engineered, but we’ll learn to make them simpler and more sensible. Likewise, the organizing and activism and information exchange aspects of affinity-group SNAs lend themselves to traditional software solutions, and we can expect some very powerful and ubiquitous apps to emerge in the coming years to do this.
The people-finding SNAs, however, are much more problematic.
Civilization makes finding people mush harder than it was for gatherer-hunter cultures, where the number of people you could expect to meet and know in a lifetime were few, and the diversity of human activities was limited. So we have no intuitive way of finding the right people among the millions who we may have some limited contact with in our lifetimes. So we have to resort to trial and error.
We won’t solve this with top-down standardized centralized databases and web apps either — the process of finding people to love, work with or pursue mutual passions is a complex, highly personal process that does not lend itself to such processes.
How then could we develop SNAs that could accommodate these difficult, iterative, personal processes? Might these SNAs need to be only partly computerized and online, and rely on more ‘essential’ meetups and face-to-face interactions? And how might the filtering mechanisms of such applications be improved to increase the likelihood of finding the right people?
These are complex problems, and they will require the development of processes that are suited to dealing with complexity (most software is designed to address merely complicated problems). We’re not very articulate, after all, at expressing who we’re looking for, or even knowing what and who it is we’re looking for (though, of course, we believe we’ll know it when we see it). Chemistry is often more important than logic in making lasting and meaningful and effective relationships, and in finding the ‘right’ people.
What we need to do is to run a large number of focused experiments, small scale, improvisational, controlled by the test group bottom-up, to hone some approaches that work. They’ll undoubtedly vary by culture and by objective. Dating services, employment and contracting agencies, and self-help groups have always grappled with these issues, but have not come up with terribly satisfactory methods or approaches — they nearly all have high failure and high attrition rates.
We need to do better. Finding people to love, to make a living with, and to share our passions and purposes with, are vital, crucial human activities, and our modern, insulated, transient society complexifies the task enormously. Software alone won’t make it easy, or certain, but SNAs embedded in new processes that embrace complexity could take us a long way, and could easily become the most important uses of the Web of all.
What techniques — newfangled or old, software-assisted or not — have you found especially effective at meeting the people you want, and need, to meet and form meaningful,productive and lasting relationships with? This, I think, is the greatest challenge of Web 2.0. And its greatest promise.
[PS: Today and tomorrow I’m guest blogging at the Fast Company Magazine Blogfest. Some illustrious bloggers are involved and some really interesting ideas being surfaced. Check it out.]
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