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« The Revenge of Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf | Main | New rule: Don't call me if you don't know me »

January 4, 2004

Does social software matter?

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Posted by David Weinberger

There's some back-and-forth at StartUpSkills.com on whether social software will amount to much. Jeremy Zawodny says: "Start thinking about how adding a social networking component to existing systems could improve them." StartUpSkills replies that people don't have enough incentive to give away the social network that is their competitive advantage. Personally, I agree with Jeremy that networks such as LinkedIn will only survive if an external application figures out a use for them. Without that, we're left with people you don't know asking you to hook them up with other people you don't know. Om Malik doesn't understand why people would share their Rolodexes with commercial entities. My problem, though, isn't that my Rolodex is too valuable to share (hah!), but that social software of the Friendster/LinkedIn sort necessarily get social relationships wrong: First, social relationships aren't transitive: If A knows B who knows C who knows D, there is no sense in which A knows C much less D. We do, however, have a social convention for first degree relationships: A is entitled to ask B for an introduction to C. But not to D. Second, social relationships aren't formal (in the logical sense). In logic, if A > B and B > C, then A > C. But -- and here's why people generally don't name their kids A, B and C -- A doesn't have to ask B's permission to be greater than C, and C doesn't get annoyed at B for pestering her with requests from strangers to be greater than C. Every time I introduce someone to my pal C, I am altering my relationship with C just a little bit. Third, real social networks are always implicit. The ones constructed explicitly are always -- yes, always -- infected with a heavy dose of social bullshit. It's like thinking that the invitiation list for your wedding actually reflects your circle of friends and relatives. No, you had to invite Barry-the-Boozer because he's your cousin and you couldn't invite Marsha because then you'd have to invite her husband Larry-the-Ass-Grabber and her daughter Erin-the-Snot-Flinger. Explicitly constructed social networks not only lack the differentiation that makes relationships real, they are falsehoods built to reinforce spectral relationships and to avoid ending shaky ones. There may be uses for the links created within these artificial social networks, for while the relationships aren't transitive, some of their properties -- interests, tastes, prejudices -- are: if A and C both know B, they are statistically more likely to share B's tastes in music than two randomly selected people are. That may turn out to be useful to some other application. But if you want to get at the real social networks, you're going to have to figure them out from the paths that actual feet have worn into the actual social carpet. (See Ross on FOAF and Plink and Clay on Om...)

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: guests


COMMENTS

1. Julian Bond on January 4, 2004 11:46 AM writes...

I'm not sure I'm getting the sense of implicit vs explicit so I'll re-phrase it. I think that systems that exploit the other activities of people to build maps of social networks will always be more accurate and have less inherent bullshit than system where the participants are consciously building networks. This may mean that systems like Spoke and Plaxo that derive metadata from email use have more relevant data than systems like Tribes, Friendster and Linkedin.

Since all of this involves communication, maybe we should be looking at the systems that facilitate communication for the richest metadada about social networks. Things like IM (especially Jabber), Yahoogroups and Usenet. I can imagine a system layered on top of this that said "If you like talking to this person (being in this group), maybe you'd like talking to these people as well."

As a complete aside, I find Friendster, Linkedin, Tribes, and even Ryze, really boring. Every time I look at these sites I can't see anything happening and I can't see anything to join in with. Building the biggest network just doesn't do it for me, I want to communicate in all forms; one2one, one2many and many2many. These are all reasons why I think Livejournal, Typepad, Yahoogroups, and of course Ecademy are much more interesting than the sites that *only* do social networks. It's activity that is important. The social networking aspect is just another way of driving more activity, not an end in itself.

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2. Lucas on January 4, 2004 6:51 PM writes...

I just think it's bizzare that the original selling point of the Internet was disintermediation, and now we have these wildy viral sites that special in what one might even call hypermediation. I suppose we shouldn't be too suprised. Look at the popularity of Amway. :)

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3. Morten Frederiksen on January 4, 2004 7:19 PM writes...

I agree with the notion of implied social and other kinds of networks as opposed to explicit.

Jon Udell just now stated [1] that he doesn't keep a FOAF file for that very reason - but as far as I'm concerned, despite the name, that's not what social networking on the internet and FOAF is for. I too find that declaring my friends is simply not interesting, and I stated as much just today on the FOAF mailing list [2]: "... I don't care much for foaf:knows anyway - even though it's one of the basic building blocks, it's simply not that interesting. What's interesting is the implicit equivalents, such as codepictions,
coauthorings, cointerests, colocations etc..."

I think FOAF is for anchors, to describe "people,
the links between them and the things they create and do" (from the FOAF project homepage [3]).

[1] http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2004/01/04.html#a878
[2] http://rdfweb.org/pipermail/rdfweb-dev/2004-January/012263.html
[3] http://www.foaf-project.org/

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4. Lucas on January 4, 2004 8:05 PM writes...

Morten, great point. I wouldn't call it implicit though I would call it granular and I agree, much more interesting...

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5. Ash Maurya on January 5, 2004 12:26 AM writes...

Just a few comments...

First of all, social networking apps are less about **sharing** or giving away your rolodex and more about **advertising** your most trusted, leverage-able relationships. I do, however, agree that no commercial entity should/can be trusted with this data. We have gone to great lengths ourselves with our social networking platform (WiredReach) to enforce user privacy (through decentralization, end-to-end encryption, etc.). Its to the point where we couldn't peek into this data even if we tried to...

Secondly, I agree that real social networks are always implicit. However, relying solely on implicit networks, which are generally weaker than explicit networks, creates other problems. What filters do you have against social spam if people in your implicit social network can contact you directly? An explicit network is based on mutual trust. If either party violates this trust, say through excessive spamming or where the value is one-sided, the other can terminate the relationship (atleast virtually).

Our solution to implict versus explicit networks is to have BOTH. We periodically present users with implict connections based on the online communities they participate in such as weblogs, message boards, etc. (dynamic discovery). These serve as possible candidates for them to turn into explicit relationships which then allows them to mutually beneift from network searches, instant messaging, referrals, vCard sync, etc.

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6. Eric on January 5, 2004 11:27 PM writes...

I'm also waiting for a SNS site which builds it's network via it's mediated activities, rather than the explicit connections which is the common method.

That is, have the site facilitate activities like endorsements, referrals, introductions, recommendations, (etc), and then have the network build the network from that.

For that to happen though, these SNS need to build a richer suite of connecting-actions.

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7. Richard Stokes on January 6, 2004 11:43 AM writes...

This is Rich at Startupskills.com. We've just finished transferring to our permanent home, so I thought I would send you the updated link in the article you quoted:

http://www.startupskills.com/archives/000010.html

Warm Regards,
Rich

Permalink to Comment

8. Tom Grey on January 7, 2004 3:31 AM writes...

While David is right about social nets getting the relationship wrong, he misses the real problem. It is the effort it takes to maintain relationships, and why do the effort. Insofar as the desire is a sell pitch (job/customer) desire, the spam A ?>? Z to anybody is replaced by mini-spam A > b? > C where the real desire from A is an easy sell. C's time and attention span are limited, as are A's & B's.
The soc. network is good when B can filter the A sale pitch and tell C that A's product/person is worth considering, by C, because B knows that C is interested. A faster, easier, reference system.

Social networks to spend leisure time with seem redundant -- who needs more options of what to do on the net?

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9. Rebecca on February 13, 2004 6:17 AM writes...

Sounds like a good idea but i think a point worth noting is, just because I know someone doesnt necessarily mean that I know them well enough to introduce them to someone else, right?


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