Make no mistake about it, 2004 is setting up to be the year of social networking. Blogs have secured their foothold on the web landscape, now it’s time for centralized services to claim their space. If Google and the venture capitalists like Bob Kagle that backed Friendster are right, people are going to flock to these services hoping to make better quality contacts, easier.
If the web has one main thread, one overriding characteristic that outshines all others; it’s empowerment. The internet has given individuals and organizations alike tremendous powers of access to information. Now it’s about to take its next step and provide us better access to each other. That’s what social networking is all about: empowering us to find each other better.
Take This Job and Blog It
Traditional professionals from every field are offering quick and general tips on their websites (and increasingly weblogs), but very few are giving fully detailed instructions as to how they perform their jobs. We now have a free flow of information necessary to understand what kind of experts we need. We still need experts, in fact as the world becomes more complex we need them more than ever. People are starting to figure out that if you need to do business globally (and increasingly you do), you’ll need help outside of your pool of talent.
Until now it’s taken web or socially savvy people to find each other, the barriers have been lowered but the methods are still crude. Trolling a gaggle of weblogs, static websites, newsletters, forums and newsgroups is to find a good professional is too much work for the average person. The big social networking sites still have a long way to go, but they are on the right track.
The Challenge for Social Networking Sites
They’ve got a big market, big dreams and big opportunities: three conditions that usually spell big challenges. After kicking the tires on some social networking sites, and I’ve got a few thoughts.
The easiest thing that could go wrong is that they will grow too fast. Bloated services don’t make it easier to find people, they just add another layer to the information overload that most people experience on a daily basis. Better categorization and more advanced searching methods would go a long way.
If social networking really does become the boom technology of 2004, cleaning up their backend should be a top priority. Friendster lag times are well known; hopefully with their recent cash infusion they can streamline the code and get better servers (assuming their problem is a combination of both). Orkut‘s written in Microsoft’s ASP, probably not the best choice. These sites have access to a plethora of talented web developers and designers; utilizing them will improve the sites dramatically and prove to every user that social networking can bear good fruit.
Focus, focus, focus. It’s tempting for sites like Ecademy to offer every feature to every user right away, but this is a big mistake. Tim Bray has found that successful technologies do one or two things well. The big sites need to set clear, realistic goals based on critical functions. Think when management hires consultants to make people interview for their own jobs: if a function can’t justify its own utility, cut it. Hire a good usability analyst to make their sites drop dead easy to use. Remember, ye who opens the door to the web layman has shall reap users that other websites cannot.
Syndication is sorely lacking. Let users publish RSS feeds from their sites, saving them from copying and pasting. The jury’s still out on FOAF and XFN, but they have huge potential and sites should be allowing users that know how to use them to intergrate. LinkedIn has the right idea when they allow you to search for contacts via an uploaded export file from popular contact management software like Outlook or Palm Desktop.
The Challenge for Social Networkers
The biggest hurdle for social networkers is using centralized services effectively, particularly while they’re still in the beta stages. As we can see, the big players still have a fair bit of work to do before social networking is as easy to navigate as the local chamber of commerce mixer.
We need to do some recruiting and invite the best and brightest we know to use these services. Ecademy seems to be heavily weighted with UK members right now, which creates a civil atmosphere and some delightful language usage, but they need more worldwide membership. In the end, it’s a matter of personal responsibility for members to tap people that could benefit from the group and be of benefit themselves.
For sites that allow contribution, content quality should be kept to a premium. It would be a terrible shame to see these sites reduced to little more than another place for brash and crass commercialism. Utilize this new opportunity to provide meaningful relationships that have value outside of a pay-for-knowledge construct. We set the bar by raising the bar, so aim high.
My 2004 Social Networking Challenge
This year, I’m going to do an experiment. Call it the Will Pate 2004 social networking challenge. I’ve already signed up on Ecademy, LinkedIn, Ryze and Tribe.net. I’m going to do three things for one year, and see what the results are:
1) Contribute and be an active participant where I can help others.
2) Find out the scoop on social networking. Subscribe to RSS feeds, find articles and try to be well read on the subject. If anyone has any resources to suggest, I would greatly appreciate it.
3) Try to raise my profile. I want to expand my network and be a trusted source for others.Powered by Sidelines