A lot of people have asked me what I think the real value of social network mapping tools like Friendster and LinkedIn are—what use is there beyond the initial novelty? Since both of these services want to make money eventually, and thus their success depends on people being willing to pay for them over time, I’ve been asking myself what, exactly, I’d be willing to pay for from such a service.
Increasingly, I’m realizing that I’m always looking for overlaps. What do I mean by that? Well, if a colleague at work recommends a book, I might look at it, or I might not. The same holds true if the author of a blog I read recommends a book. But if both a colleague and a respected (by me) blogger mention it—well, it’s a lot more likely to end up on the top of my Amazon wish list.
Adding new blogs to my regular reading list works the same way for me. For example, I’ve seen Shelley Powers mention Loren Webster’s blog on numerous occasions—but, suffering from blog overload, I’ve not explored his site. But today, Torill Mortensen mentioned it, as well. I think of Torill and Shelley as moving in very different blog circles, so an overlap there jumps out at me. I wasn’t much surprised, then, to find how much I enjoyed Loren’s blog.
How is this related to the Friendster/LinkedIn issue? Well, that same process is a key part of why I prefer Friendster to LinkedIn. In Friendster, I can look at a “friend of a friend” and immediately see all the paths that lead from me to that person. If they all seem to go through the same general set of people—a social circle I think of as cohesive—I don’t pay nearly as much attention as if there are a number of different paths through people I wouldn’t necessarily group together. That tells me there are probably multiple shared interests between me and the other person, and makes me more likely to want to find out more about them—maybe personally, maybe professionally.
LinkedIn doesn’t allow me to explore in this way, to browse the paths between me and someone else, to start to see emergent patterns in my own connections and the connections between people I know. In Joi Ito’s wiki page on LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman says that’s a deliberate design decision, and I respect his reasons for making that decision. But at the end of the day, it makes LinkedIn much less attractive to me than Friendster. LinkedIn is very task-oriented—“connect me to person X so I can ask for money/a job/information immediately.” But in most cases, I’d rather take a more oblique approach to a connection.
So the answer to my question ends up being that I’d pay for the ability to browse and search my network on a regular basis, to see connections and understand them, to find out where a particular person fits into the web of my interconnections. I won’t pay for introductions, particularly when they’re handled in a way that’s as stripped of context as LinkedIn requires them to be. It’s not the outcomes I’m interested in…it’s the process.
In a recent conversation I had with Stewart Butterfield (via IM, of course…), he argued that a user’s interest in seeing those connections would be short term; once you’d seen it, you’d be done, and wouldn’t want to pay for it on an ongoing basis. But for some of us, I don’t think that’s true. Some people will sit for hours in front of the Weather Channel, and others will spend money for discs with topographic maps and then navigate through the virtual space endlessly. Similarly, some of us will always be fascinated by the way we fit into social mappings of the world. Are there enough of us to support these services? That’s the real question. I hope the answer is yes.