Life With Alacrity

A blog on social software, collaboration, trust, security, privacy, and internet tools by Christopher Allen.

Evaluating Social Network Services

by

After a week where I met a number of bloggers and social network / social software people, I decided to try to update my various networks at Ryze, Tribe.Net, LinkedIn, and Friendster.

These are my observations of these social network services after a few weeks of work.

Overview of Social Network Services

ChristopherA @ Ryze

This was the first social network service that I signed up that seemed to already have some of my friends on it. At the urging of Stuart Henshall I put a little more effort into it and got a half-dozen connections. After last week, when I met more social software people in person, and a bunch of link requests, I now have 22 'friends'.

Ryze has the clunkiest interface of the four major social network services -- your personal home page starts with a two column profile that is professionally oriented, but has difficulty if you have more then one affliliation. Below this standard profile you can use some HTML to create a better looking section, but for non-HTML users it is difficult. Finally, the page ends with a Guestbook, which other other service members can post comments in.

One of my favorite features in Ryze is that when you click on a friend or potential friend, it shows you all the connections that you have between yourself and that person through your friends and friends of friends. Some of course will be obvious (as you run the the same circles) but sometimes you will find a completely different connection than you anticpated. Related, once you sign in the site home page will show you small pictures and first names of various friends of friends, and you'll sometimes recognize some of them and ask them to join your network.

A clunky feature, but one that shows promise, is that when you see another person's profile, you can reveal selectively your business phone number, your email address, your home phone, or your cell phone. You can do this for anyone individually, or you can set rules such that friends automatically get some of this information.

One of the most interesting things about Ryze is its orientation toward having physical gatherings, such as parties. There various events going on every week. As they charge for many of these events, thus Ryse has sort of a business model. I've not attended any parties yet, but I've been told by at least one professional that she has gotten business from them.

Besides the clunkiness of the interface and your personal home page, the worst thing about Ryze is that it is a little too open by default. To add someone as a friend takes a single click, and you get no opportunity to say why someone should join your network. Though that makes it easier to add people, on the recieving side I ended up with a number of people who wanted to add me as a friend when I had no idea who they were. The other level of openness is the guestbook -- I suppose it is supposed to serve as a combination of introduction and endorsement, but in practice it is almost spam. Guestbook entries are automatically visible, and you have to go through a clunky interface to hide them.

ChristopherA @ Tribe.Net

Tribe.Net was the second service I signed up for, and I currently have 24 friends.

The name of this service exemplifies what I like most about Tribe.net -- by design you have multiple affiliations, or tribes.Each tribe has a message board, so 'intentional communities' is an important part of this service. In fact, this site almost hides your professional information, putting it under a secondary tab, but unfortunately, this tab also only allows for one affiliation per member.

Another unique thing about Tribe.Net is the classified listings -- you see on various pages listings of requests and to a lesser extent offers from your social network.

The biggest weakness with Tribe.Net is that it lacks the ability to personalize very much. Your personal home page is mainly lists, and thus your personalization is largely limited to your photo.

ChristopherA @ LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the most professional looking of all the social networking services that I've looked at so far, and is very oriented toward your professional network and not your broader personal network. In fact, unlike almost all the other sites, LinkedIn doesn't allow for you to add a photo your your personal page. I currently have 20 "connections" (they don't call them friends).

My favorite part of LinkedIn is that it has a very good resume engine. Basically you put in all of your recent job history, with dates, and the software displays it in a form that looks a lot like a resume. This is the only social networking service that I've found so far that lets you have multiple current professional affilations, which for me is important. Unfortunately, this site does not allow you to easily list your non-professional affiliations, nor does it allow for you to separate job-type affilations with lesser type affiliations like 'investor', 'member of professional association', etc.

An important strength and weakness to LinkedIn is that it is much more protective of your privacy. You can't add anyone to your network unless you know their name and email address, or you have to get a referral from someone who is already your friend. This makes this service much more professional respectable then the other social networking services, which are more casual. For busy and well connected people like Esther Dyson this is very important.

I've only recently joined LinkedIn, so I haven't had a chance to use it's requests feature yet, but in at least the area of Venture Capital, it seems quite powerful. When I searched on this I got over 500 people that were somehow connected to my social network that I might be able to ask a friend for an introduction to.

The biggest weaknesss of this site is that it tries to be completely self-contained. It doesn't let you list your website, blogs, or give out your personal information selectively like Ryse does. The only external information that it allows you to share is your email address, and that only to friends.

ChristopherA @ Friendster

This is the most recent social networking service that I have joined. Designed originally for dating, I had not played around with it as I'm in a long-term relationship. However, after hearing Danah Boyd talke about it her blogs, I realized that it has evolved beyond that.

The nicest thing about Friendster is its simplicity. There are 13 entries to fill out, ranging from gender to favorite movies. Unfortunately the site has become a bit over-popular with the under-25 crowd lately, so it can be very slow in the evenings. Because it was a dating site, the photo links are important, and the actual photos show up larger on this site then they do on any other site, making your photo on your personal page even more important.

The biggest weakness to Friendster is also that simplicity -- it is not oriented toward professional connections, nor to your group affiliations. It is just about you and your immediate friends. This makes Frienster the most "status" oriented of the various sites. It becomes more important to see how many friends you have, and how many endorsements you can get.

Others

The first social networking service that I ever tried was Friendly Favors, now Living Directory, which I am at ChristopherA @ LivingDirectory. However, I've never been able to find many of my associates already on this system. This site was oriented toward the idea of trading favors and has a heavy non-profit orientation. But without being able to find people that I know already signed up, it hasn't worked for me. One obstacle that I had when I first joined, which may have gone away, was that you needed a sponsor to join.

A site that is not normally considered social networking software, but I believe should be is LiveJournal, where I am ChristopherA_ at LiveJournal. This is primarily a blog site, however, because other LiveJournal members are the only ones allowed to post comments on your site, and there is a "friends" link that shows the top entries of your friend's LiveJournal sites. This results in some of the behaviors that I've seen on Friendster and Ryze happen at LiveJournal.

Barriers of Entry

The first barrier of entry to these social networking services is they require reasonably significant effort and time to get started. In the case of Ryze, they have a clunky user 'home' page that you have to take time to fill out. Tribe is a bit easier then Ryze. LinkedIn is relatively easy if you have a resume handy. Friendster is the easiest to fill out (provided you already have a decent picture) and relatively easy to find friends.

A second barrier of entry is that it often takes at least one person with a large existing network before many of the features of the service start being useful. In my case with Ryze and Tribe.Net it was Stuart Henshall, and with LinkedIn it was Scott Loftesness. With LinkedIn, this was particularly important, as you can't even search for people who you don't have 3rd degree connection with an existing friend -- once I added in Scott I could find lots of people that were on my other networks.

The third barrier of entry is signing up people to your network:

The easiest signups are those that already members of the network. Each of the 4 services have different advantage and disadvantages for signing up existing members of the network:

  • Ryze search allows you to search all members, not just friends of friends. The search is fairly simple, just first name and last name, but you must do them all individually. You get a result which is a very small photo and first and last initial -- in some cases it can be difficult to figure out if it isn't a false-positive, but in most cases it is enough that you can tell. However, when you request to add someone you don't get an opportunity to include in the request message who you are and why you wanted them to join your network.
  • Tribe.Net also allows you to search by first and last name, and it will search all members, not just friends of friends. Like Ryze you must search individually. However, it does allow you to personalize your request to join.
  • LinkedIn has a nice feature where you can upload your Outlook address book, and it can find matches of people where the name and email address match and you can ask to invite them. However, once you've exhausted these immediate connections, LinkedIn is harder to add new connections to existing members. First, you must have at least found one person in your Outlook address book who is well connected, or your searches will fail as searches only work through friends of friends. Next, when you find other people, you must enter their email address, and if you don't have it (or can't find it on the net) or if it is different, then you must request an invite by way of that friend of a friend. Of course, you don't want to bother your friends with these requests, so often you will not do so.
  • Friendster allows you to search by first and last name from the entire network, however, the searches can sometimes be extremely slow. Like Ryze, you can't put a note in to say who and why you want to link to them.

    The hardest signups are to those who are part of your real-life personal network, but haven't signed up for any of these services. First, you risk being perceived as a spammer if you don't invite each with a personally crafted invitation, and if they do sign up, you feel an obligation to get them going because otherwise their use of the service will be clunky. All of this means that I have invited very few people to join these services that were not already signed up.

    Lastly, a big barrier is that all four of these services rely on endorsements of one nature or another. This takes time, and involves some emotional and personal exposure. A poorly written endorsement reflects on both you and the person you are endorsing. Asking for endorsements is an expenditure of personal relationship capital that you need to be careful of. Related, do you endorse people who have endorsed you?

    Barriers of Maintenance

    One you have joined one of these services, you really need to maintain it. This means updating and improving your personal pages, searching for people that have joined and adding them to your friends lists.

    One odd ongoing problem that I have is, upon receiving a request, evaluating who I should allow to be a 'friend' -- if I discriminate too much my network will be small. I was much less discriminating when I first joined Ryze, and there are a few people that are on my 'friends' list that I really don't know. Part of this problem is the nature of these links. My ideal would be that there were at least two levels, acquantaince and friend.

    Barriers of Usefuless

    With all the effort it takes to join and start these services, as well as the ongoing effort it takes to maintain them, ultimately there has to be a payoff in some utility. This can be in new friends or contacts, or new business, etc.

    At this point I'm not sure that for me that it will be worth the effort. Maybe that is because I'm fairly good at networking to start with, and secondarily because I don't want to overspend my personal relationship capital on frivolous stuff. Maybe if I didn't live in the bay area where many of my contacts are already based, or if I had some more immediate needs, such as looking for a VC to pitch to on LInkedIn, or to party with Ryze members, or to invite people to join an intentional community on Tribe.

    Another part of the problem is that there are a number of these sites, and they seem to have a lot of the same people. Maintaining more then one and synchronizing your contacts across multiple services is very difficult. If there was one site that everyone was on and offered the best of all the features, I'd consider dropping all the others.

    Related, if everyone doesn't discriminate who they choose as friends, the functionality of these sites may break down, or just become popularity contets.

    The Perfect Social Networking Service

    My ideal service would have the the multiple professional affiliation features of LinkedIn, but also allow me to show non-professional affilations. It would allow me to form intentional communities like Tribes.Net, but would also let me do a Wiki in addition to a message board. It would have meeting/party invite services like eVite, and blogging features like LiveJournal. It would have an endorsement system like LinkedIn integrated not only with professional endorsements, but personal endorsements as well, and you could even endorse intentional communities. It would let me better map and control my network, giving different friends different privileges. It would handle the release of my personal information like Ryse, but less clunky.

    (I have a followup to this blog post on Thursday.)

    Comments

    It may be time to refresh this post by adding some of the more recent self-sufficient social networks driven not by explicit affiliations but by patterns of behavior. These networks have the potential of growing much faster due to the low maintenance required on the user side.

    juan manuel

    The problem with these social networking sites is that to get any benefit out of them you have to spend hours a day on the sites.

    Tino Buntic

    Perhaps intentionally, you left out Care2Connect, http://Care2.com/connect. It's got a decided liberal activism bias but, given that, its a great social and dating network and you can include professional input as well. Great article otherwise!

    Ringmaster

    URL: I need a company that can build me a social networking platform. Can anyone give me any names in the los Angeles area?

    dan

    orginal layout