Social networking: too much of a good thing

Are social networks doomed to collapse under the weight of their own success?

The potential of social networking web sites is truly awesome. Venues such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (and dozens more), allow us to connect with, and form, social units for all manner of activities. Keeping in touch with friends and colleagues has never been easier, and people are taking advantage of these new tools to organize everything from hikes and art discussions to wholesale political revolutions. The popularity of these internet-based social networking venues is astounding, with many social networking web sites are seeing extraordinary growth in membership and usage. But therein lies the rub: the very success of social networking could be it’s very undoing. At some point, continued growth in membership (and usage) of any social networking site may begin to diminish the over-all utility of the community, and lead to its undoing. To this day, the best social networks I have ever participated was [url=]Usenet[/url], back in the early 1990s, long before the concept (as we know it today) existed. In its early days, Usenet was a vibrant social community. I bought and sold things, found work, and participated in engaging discussions of everything from politics and religion to technical advice. Unfortunately, as the popularity of Usenet increased, it eventually reached a point by the later ‘90s where the community had been destroyed. So many frivolous posts were being spammed on the newsgroups, that there was hardly any opportunity for good conversation. A similar phenomena has already played out in many other internet communities. MySpace has become so cluttered with marketing and abuse that it is not taken very seriously anymore. Facebook seems to be headed in the same direction. I find it overwhelming to sift through the content and meaningless posts, from even the legitimate friends I connect with on Facebook. Twitter is a complete mess. The vast majority of activity on Twitter is useless drivel. Most of the people I follow are just posting links to boring articles they have seen. Worse, no one seems to pay much attention to the items that are posted on Twitter. One of the articles on my blog (the one about [url=]things I learned in my career at Microsoft[/url]) got a fair amount of attention. So much so that no less than at least 27 people created tweets about it. Even with such a groundswell of twitter chatter less than 100 of the over 5000 hits to that article came from twitter. Some of the people who mentioned my article on Twitter had many thousands of followers, yet only 5 or 10 of their “followers” ever bothered to read my story. At this point, I just don’t see the point of investing time in building a following on Twitter if the response rates are so abysmally low. My favourite community (at the moment) is LinkedIn. Yet even here, in this highly focused bastion of professional-oriented social networking, cracks are starting to show. I am regularly spammed by people in groups I am members of by people trying to market things. Worse, there are whole movements advocating blatant promiscuity, and the desire to link with anyone and everyone that exists. Whole terms, and communities themselves, have been created around this principal (e.g. LION for LinkedIn Open Networker). This leads people such as myself with a dilemma of refusing to connect to those who are so indiscriminate, even if they are someone I know and want to keep in touch with. Of course, it is possible to lock down your LinkedIn profile to prevent others from seeing your friends, or even from sending you unsolicited e-mails. But draconian restrictions defeat the whole purpose of communities. It is the serendipitous discussions, and connections, with people you might not really know that make communities truly powerful and exciting. Yet, the more you make yourself open to such a free-flow of communication, the more you become inundated with drivel and spam. I don’t think it is a coincidence that many of the best communities are highly restricted, and simply unable to grow beyond certain set bounds at the very outset. The classified advertising web-site on the Microsoft corporate network (only accessible to Microsoft employees), for example, was far and away superior to Craigslist or eBay. Sure, Craigslist has a far greater volume of advertisements, but many of the postings are of a poor quality (and for dubious goods). There is something special about the trustworthiness that comes from knowing that the people you are dealing with are in the same company (charity group, or whatever). The social communities that are enabled by the Internet are truly wonderful, with much potential, just so long as they don’t become too successful. It may well be that this law of diminishing returns for social networks almost guarantees that the commercial potential of any particular community is limited (i.e. since the community itself will collapse under its own weight if it grows too big). Perhaps we are catching a glimpse of the ephemera that will forever be a facet of the Internet that our children, and grandchildren, will come to know. Communities may wax and wane, in a perpetual game of shifting sands, as users constantly shift to still newer venues for connecting with one another when the older ones become too crowded. I just dread having to create yet more profiles to manage in the years to come, as I try to keep ahead of the shifting sands, finding those golden communities, with opportunities for meeting people before they too become spoilt.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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