Dave Pollard: The Social Networking Landscape

Dave Pollard: The Social Networking Landscape

In preparation for one of my presentations in San Jose, I've been trying to define the boundaries of Social Networking, rather than simply (and less usefully) trying to define the term. The best way I found to do so is to list the various functionalities (applications) of Social Software by objective, rather than listing the tools themselves by type of content (as Judith Meskill does with her wonderful omnibus directory of current Social Software) or by audience. Most Social Software serves more than one function and has more than one objective, but that doesn't invalidate this as a useful taxonomy for Social Networking -- in fact, by deconstructing the functionality of various Social Software tools we might actually get some insight into what combinations of functionality, when well designed and integrated, make a good product.

What emerged from this effort is a 'Landscape' diagram of Social Networking, shown above. The eight major objectives are:
  1. Finding people (discovering, rediscovering, or locating them)
  2. Building directories, network maps and social networks
  3. Inviting people to join your networks
  4. Managing access to your networks ("permissioning")
  5. Connecting with people in your networks (using various media)
  6. Managing relationships across media (e.g. making the jarring transition from e-mail or weblog-based relationships to voice-to-voice or face-to-face)
  7. Collaborating with people in your networks, and
  8. Content sharing with people in your networks (and other learning, knowledge-finding and knowledge-sharing functionalities that are arguably the domain of Knowledge Management rather than Social Networking)
Because they are so easy to build, there is a temptation to design Social Software to provide many Social Networking and Knowledge Management functions in a single tool. The consequence, often, is an over-engineered, unintuitive, overwhelming product. Let's take a look at ten of the most successful tools to date, to see what critical functionality has made them so successful:
  • Weblogs: Content-Sharing/Filtering + Finding People (in your Communities of Interest) + Publishing/Subscribing + Forum. Weblogs provide context-rich knowledge plus a forum for reader conversations. As social software they are successful because (a) they are easy to set up and maintain, (b) thanks to Google, they attract a lot of attention, but they are also very valuable KM tools, so their social value is a bonus. 
  • Wikis: Collaborating. They have succeeded because they're the simplest imaginable asynchronous collaboration tool, and don't mess that up by trying to be something more.
  • Del.icio.us: Content-Sharing/Filtering + Finding People (in your Communities of Interest) + Publishing/Subscribing + Forum. Same formula as blogging, but trading off less work for against a poorer-context relationship, by publishing your bookmarks instead of your articles.
  • Flickr: Content-Sharing/Filtering + Finding People (in your Communities of Interest) + Publishing/Subscribing + Forum. Just like Del.icio.us except the shared content is images instead of bookmarks.
  • DodgeBall: Finding People + Finding Where People Are Right Now. DodgeBall gets around the invasiveness of tracking other people (stalking) by putting a reverse spin on it: You tell DodgeBall where you are and it tells others in your network (current and desired associates, friends, and crushes) when you are nearby, so that, if they are so inclined, they can contact you to meet up.
  • BaseCamp: Collaborating + Messaging + Scheduling/Calendaring. An intuitive project management tool that makes contacting project team members using various media, with a minimum of other bells and whistles.
  • MySpace: Finding People + Messaging + Content-Sharing. Dead simple social networking tool, primarily for young people looking for friends & romantic interests and sharing music and photos.
  • FaceBook: Finding People. Focused on students in high schools and universities, this simple tool lets you establish networks within your current school and track people from former schools.
  • Insider Pages: Content-Sharing + Finding People. The content is reviews of companies by consumers. The idea is to take the Consumer Reports concept local, so that consumers can see what others think about local suppliers. Information not available elsewhere and probably only ever available peer-to-peer. Enormous potential here, especially if Google Maps is integrated. The challenge is getting people to take the time to volunteer their opinions. The way around the challenge is getting reviewers to sign up their friends and neighbours.
  • Mind-Mapping: Collaborating. Simply and quickly documents what's being said and agreed to, graphically, in real time, so that participants in a conference/meeting/community can see and react to it immediately. Gives participants a complete 'map' of the conversation as soon as the conversation ends. The mind-map above was made using FreeMind.
Weblogs, and tools like Del.icio.us and Flickr both share and socially filter content: The critical Web 2.0 concept that as the content in Web 1.0 gets overwhelming, we need to filter what we look at, and there's no better filter than the opinions of people we trust.

It's not a coincidence that, except for wikis, BaseCamp and a few weblog tools, all of this Social Software is free. Because of this, it's built an audience bottom-up. Also because of this, getting corporations of any size to adopt these powerful and effective tools is like pulling teeth.

Here are (still) the ten biggest problems with most existing Social Software tools:
  1. Inflexible, tedious information architecture ("Why is entering this field mandatory?")
  2. Profile poverty ("This tells me absolutely nothing of value about this person")
  3. No separation between What I Have and What I Need personas (the information about you I care about depends on whether I am 'buying' or 'selling' -- even classified ads 'get' this)
  4. Lack of harvesting capability ("Why do I have to enter this again?")
  5. Populated just-in-case instead of canvassed just-in-time ("Oh, sorry, I no longer work there" and "Oops, sorry, I'm married now")
  6. The most needed people have the least time and motivation to participate
  7. Over-engineered and unintuitive
  8. Lack of scalability and resilience: Centralized instead of peer-to-peer (when it gets too big or goes down, you're out of luck)
  9. Socially awkward ("I'm not going to tell someone I've never met that!")
  10. Low signal-to-noise ratio because of dysfunctional information behaviours (blockages, disconnects, lack of trust) -- these need to be accommodated by Social Software tools, instead of ignored

Once we get these problems solved, Social Networking is poised for tremendous growth, and because its value proposition is so compelling, might just be the application that attracts the 80% of the population still on the other side of the digital divide.

How to Save the World, 04/11/05