Web Informant #380, 30 July 2004:

Social networking may be the next social disease




Where and how do you keep your critical contacts? I have been thinking a lot about this recently, as a result of almost losing my entire address book of several thousand contacts that I had built up over the years. (It is a long story that I don't want to get into now, but it has to do with the fact that I maintain it in Notes. I know, bad idea.)


My current boss keeps his critical contacts on paper, where he claims he can best find them. He is no troglodyte, but he doesn't trust any electronic system and the paper seems to work for him. That's probably the most extreme example. Many of you (myself excluded) use Palms or Blackberries and carry around all your contacts on your person. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, having some people's data on paper, some electronic, and a huge pile of business cards from our last trip that we need to enter into our system somehow.


Some of you have tried to entice me to use Plaxo, which puts your contacts online and will update them when someone makes a change to their information. The service is a good idea if someone has both home and work machines and wants to keep the same list of contacts maintained on both, and is using Outlook or Outlook Express. I have resisted using Plaxo because it looks like too much trouble, and doesn't work with Notes. And after my last near-death experience, I prefer to synchronize my contacts the old-fashioned way, by copying the files myself. Call me a troglodyte if you will.


Ironically, several years ago I had a better system that was completely electronic and automated. It was home grown and worked with my Web Informant mailing list, my WAP-enabled phone, and a simplified contact manager called Dynodex that I ran on my Macintosh. Alas, that is just a distant memory. Now I have to make do with Notes, which means if I don't have my laptop, I don't have all of my contacts.


Plaxo isn't the only online service to keep track of with whom you communicate. There are numerous other services including Orkut.com, LinkedIn.com, and Multiply.com, just to name a few that I have used over the past several months. These typically go under the moniker of social networks, but what they are really about is keeping in touch with people that you seldom see. The trouble is, none of them are very useful unless you are willing to devote a lot of time to keeping up with your contacts.


Now, it is ironic that I, a professional communicator who writes to several thousand of my contacts about once a week am complaining about these services. But they just don't work for me. Sure, I got to renew a bunch of faded memories and exchange some snappy emails with people that I haven't heard from in a while, which is all well and good. But I do that every day without these services. As one of my friends said, "I'm already in touch with people I know and need to interact with for business anyway."


One of my biggest issues is that these services assume that the lines between work and play are disappearing. But while I may ask the same person out on a date and send them a copy of my current business plan, it isn't likely. (And that is especially true, given that I just got engaged to a wonderful woman.) That is one of the downfalls of Orkut, which asks in your profile questions about "what do you have in your bedroom" right next to asking about your professional degrees and qualifications.


Let's look at the two social networks that I have been a member of, LinkedIn and Multiply. LinkedIn is more of a business contact-referral network, whereby you can try to track someone down that is a friend of a friend and email them through this pipeline with a particular request. Multiply is more of a personal photo-posting site that also can be used to share family experiences such as personal restaurant and movie reviews and the best place to get ice cream in your local 'hood.


I came to both from existing members, the former a business associate and the latter through a friend. Overall, I think the whole concept is the next Internet sock puppet: something that is mildly cute and annoying, depending on the time of day and what else you have to deal with in your working life. On Multiply, a friend of my friend is definitely the queen of the service: this person posts frequently, documenting everything about her life and especially that of her infant daughter. The reporting is impressive, but also oppressive, and you wonder if people would spend less time documenting their lives and more time living them.


And while Multiply is really great at posting your digital pictures, they only post low-res copies so if you really want to share the photos and print them out you still have to email the originals to your friends. Plus, I found it a bit creepy that friends of my friend's family (whom I haven't met) were looking at my snaps, let alone friends of friends of friends, too. Don't these people have lives?


So what about LinkedIn? When I started digging into the system earlier in the week, I had 40 contacts that were organically grown from friends emailing me to add them to my circle. Like many of my correspondents, I just approved everyone that requested contact to me, whether I really knew them or had just met them once at a conference many years ago.


But there are other ways to augment your network. With LinkedIn, you just upload a comma-separated file of email addresses; it then parses them and sees if anyone is already signed up. Out of 2500 contacts that I uploaded, over 500 were already using the LinkedIn service. I sent about 150 of them a message asking to hook up. But the system isn't perfect: I got several bounce messages, meaning that people have changed their email address since signing up. So much for staying in touch.


Within a day, my network had doubled. A lot of people just approved my request to add them to my network clearly these people are just as busy as I am and didn't want to stand in my way of widening my circle of acquaintances.


And that is one of the blessings and one of the curses of these services: they make it real easy to expand your network, and soon you are two degrees of separation from thousands of people that you barely know. They claim that is a good thing, because now you have thousands of people to bother if you want to send their your resume, ask them for money, or a meeting to discuss the state of the world. But that's the problem: there is no middle ground. You either are a Friend of the World or a hermit crab. You can't dial in anything in-between.


So how do you deal with all of this humanity? Whom do you trust? What happens if you recommend a creep and want to recall that link? (You can't, in most cases.)


All of this is a long way at getting at the central issue. Who really owns your contact information? When you parse your address list and upload it to the server, who else gets to view these names? In my case, I had forgotten that when I signed up for LinkedIn I had kept my connections private. I don't remember why at the time. (About a fifth of my contacts also keep their lists private too, and only four women out of that group. So are men more private about their little black books? Got me.)


Tim O'Reilly, the Internet publisher and peer-to-peer guru, had this to say about social networks at his conference this week: "We have to Napsterize the address book and the calendar so that we own the data about our social network but we are able to query our friends about who they know. We also need to re-think email and Instant Messages as social software." The trouble is, once we make all of our address books peers, it becomes awfully hard to control the quality of the information. Imagine someone uploading Madonna's contact information, it could be the next Trojan.


I did get some value out of renewing my contacts through the system, though. I started discussions with several friends about potential freelance opportunities here at CMP, and found out a few people who are looking for or who have new jobs. I managed to update my creaky Notes contacts list with several people that I had fallen out of touch with. But was it worth all the effort? I am not so sure.


Here are some of the comments that I got about LinkedIn when I sent my request around to my own contacts. You'll have to trust me that these are all important, busy people, many of whom are CEOs and CTOs of substantial businesses.


"I think it's a complete waste of time and that this social-networking software is mostly BS. On the other hand, people's feelings seem to be hurt if you know them but don't want to play."  Many people mentioned that they just approve the requests without really giving it much thought. Again, this gets at the lack of granularity of the service. You either hate everyone or love 'em all. This is somewhat of the same issue: "I have been asked to join people's networks who I wish hadn't found me. The problem is that it is hard to protect yourself from broad exposure when you participate in a community like this, so you have to be visible to all comers."


"LinkedIn is a positive networking tool in keeping me up to date with people I already know." I can attest to that after sending out several hundred emails, I got to hear from people that I haven't corresponded in a while. "I received several invitations from folks I haven't spoken with in years. This has rekindled many old relationships," said another person. "This service has been useless as a business tool, but it has been great as a 'high school reunion.' People I have not heard from in ages keep popping up and it has been great to hear from them and catch up."


"There seem to be many people in our industry using it." Very true. Of course, it is hard to figure out if there are people in OTHER industries that are using it too. Sometimes you get the feeling that you are living in your own small universe of IT-related nerdy types.


"A linkage to Plaxo would be incredible."  Now there is an idea: use the power of the automatic updating of Plaxo with the networking of LinkedIn.


"I like the concept, but I want to control it more. I get to hear from people that I haven't talked to in a long time, and it is great for that. But I had another friend who listed herself on LinkedIn, only to find that she was contacted by a stalker from her past." Oops! Too much networking could be a bad thing.


"I mostly get resumes from people. That is 90% of what I get through this system." But even this has its drawbacks. "I used the service to try to source new hires. Often times the person who you would connect to in order to reach your target recruit may be at their present company and could even be their manager. It's hard to know as the degrees of separation get larger."


"I haven't found use for it yet. For me, it's like discussion groups. Some people thrive in those kinds of community situations. They put a lot in and get a lot out. I don't." Another friend said, "Overall, I find these services a bit silly." And one comment was quite telling: "It may possibly suffer from more sellers than buyers, but the idea is good
and I really hope it succeeds. LinkedIn has to get the supply/demand, or buyer/seller, balance right. It needs to be seen to be a good deal for both buyers and sellers, and attract them in equal numbers."


I think the jury is still out on social networks. But clearly something is happening here: there are thousands of people who are using these networks (one of my contacts has over 2300 people on his network) and growing. If we could become more granular on the quality of the connection without offending someone these things would really take off. One last word from another friend:


"LinkedIn, and a few other similar sites, strike me very much as a throwback to the dot-com boom --- several companies simultaneously come up with an idea that in theory sounds kind of interesting, but aren't especially compelling, and manage to get a fair amount of hype around it. Of course, in those earlier days, the company would be valued in the several hundred million dollar range, but as for today, who knows?"


Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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