Monday, February 21, 2011

Anti-social networking

When LinkedIn recently promoted a mapping tool that allowed users to create a visual map of their connections, it offered an interesting outlook on how users had built their ‘professional’ network on LinkedIn. For me, the map showed distinct clusters of connections broadly based around jobs and companies I had worked in, with few inter-linkages. This seemed logical and quite natural for the platform.

It got me thinking about my connections across all my different networks, how the various network maps would look if a similar tool was available for other platforms and how those maps would look if they were all linked together – essentially a complete online map.

Whilst I didn’t go so far as to actually make out the map (physically), I did reach two major conclusions:

1.    My social network “hubs” are on Facebook, Twitter and to a lesser degree LinkedIn.
2.    All the other various platforms I am on have almost no unique connections, with connections derived from these connection ‘hubs’.

The answer as to why this is the case is fairly obvious. Any new platform we now join has some sort of connection importing facility – allowing users to build up their network through people they already know from elsewhere. That makes sense for the networks as it gets users onboard with a large number of connections immediately and allows them to use the service with people they already know from elsewhere. However from a social networking point of view, it doesn’t really make sense.

For me, the whole point of being on social networks is to get to ‘meet’ new people, to interact with them, network with them…however you want to put it, the whole premise should be about broadening your networks. But when contacts can be shared at the click of a button across networks, it doesn’t really promote that. Think of it as akin to moving to a new city, making friends but then as time goes on you frequent the same bars with the same people – your friendships with those people are strong but you meet new people far less. Things become stale.

Foursquare is a great example. I am a big fan of location based networks – I think in theory they’re a great idea and really hope they become adopted by the majority as opposed to the early adopters. But all my contacts on Foursquare are derived from my Facebook or Twitter connections. It’s not easy to connect randomly with people who visit similar venues to you regularly and who obviously share similar interests. The platform doesn’t really have a mechanism that makes this easy.

The closest ‘new’ platform I can think of that goes against this is Quora. By making topics rather than connections the focus, it helps you discover people with similar interests to yours. Effectively it takes your interests and helps you develop new clusters of connections that actually have some sort of contextual relevance to you. I’m not a huge fan of Quora as it is – I don’t really use it but believe their method of connecting people on their platform is far more ‘social’. It’s one of the reasons why I think it will become a more useful platform in the future. It has a USP and is not the same conversations with the same people just in a different place.

This is obviously written from my own experience and perspective, and I’d be keen to hear if other readers have had similar experiences. Do you find yourself sharing connections more and more without actually meeting new people? And do you think this is almost ‘anti-social’?