I’ve received a number of replies and pointers after posting my Evaluating Social Network Services here last Tuesday. Here are a few:

Invite Issues

Esther Dyson writes in her blog about invite issues for her favorite social networking service in Some Comments on LinkedIn:

I am getting a lot of invitations from people I don’t know. It would be great to have a button that says “See inviter’s profile” that links directly from the confirm-or decline-invitation page.

Also, on the invitations page, the service should include some advice: “Do not invite people who do not know you. If you are not sure, at least give them a hint of who you are … how you met, etc. If you are not sure or that effort is too much work for a particular person, perhaps you do not know that person well enough.”

My sense is that people are starting to invite everyone in their address book. That may goose statistics, but the key is the signal, not the noise. ANd, of course, too much noise will drown out the signal.

In Pierre’s Web, Pierre writes that he is having issues with the amount of spam-like messages he recieves from LinkedIn when the lauched the service to upload your outlook address book:

I’ve been getting too many of these e-mails. Since I haven’t used this new ‘feature’ of LinkedIn, I don’t know if these messages are automated or manually triggered. They all have the same text, so they seem automatic. I’ve decided I’m going to decline or ignore these unless I get a personal note. Roughly 1 out of 3 comes from someone whose name I recognize. But people I know well don’t send me these – they send me direct invitations.

In Werblog Kevin Werbach comments on both Esther & Pierre’s issues at When is a Connection Not a Connection:

(The) problem is that the social networking services don’t have a field for “do I really know this individual personally?” Having someone’s email address in Outlook isn’t necessarily a proxy for a relationship. Yesterday I got a request through Spoke to forward an invitation to Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist. I knew both the sender and the next person in the chain, and the request was reasonable, so I forwarded it on. The recipient wrote back to say that his only link to Krugman was sending him one email last year commenting on a column. Krugman never responded. Not exactly a “trusted connection.”

Justin Hitt wrote me an email in response to my evaluation blog entry:

You also address an important issue that the degree of a relationship is important – (for example) I’d like to connect with you through LinkedIn, but we only know of each other. While we have a mutual connection of Thomas Powers – I don’t know anything about your challenges as a business owner.

Of course, when I update my address books with people I’ve interacted with in the last 30 days, you’ll automatically become a part of my network. The real importance of this type of pseudo-relationship is that it’s turned into something. Either I have to provide value to you, or you to me, or together to another party.

Perhaps the perfect system would let me assign a degree of relationship strength (like the Spoke system)– you’d start as a 1, but over time could be upgraded to a 10 if we are of value to each other.

Differing Values of Networks

In Werblog Kevin Werbach continues in the same blog posting an important observation about the differing values of a social network:

Pierre Omidyar and Esther Dyson both complain about getting spammed by invitations through business-oriented social networking services such as LinkedIn.
(The) most connected people need them the least. Esther and Pierre don’t need LinkedIn to reach pretty much anyone they want to contact. Yet there are a whole lot of folks who want to reach them, and don’t have a personal connection to do so. So the service worsens their email overload with little corresponding benefit. I’m somewhat in the same boat. I’m certainly not as well-known as Esther and Pierre, but I have a pretty good network in the tech industry. I haven’t yet found a situation where LinkedIn got me to someone I couldn’t reach directly, by Googling for an email address, or by guessing a mutual connection.

Mike on TechDirt further supports this issue in Social Networking Services Brings Out Critics:

I was part of a company that tried to build just such a solution in the 90s, and we discovered that people who have valuable rolodexes realize there’s value in keeping those rolodexes private. They’re not comfortable with handing them out. At the same time, the people who most need to use such a service are those with the fewest connections. In other words, social networking services are often a system for subsidizing the poor networking skills of the unconnected with the strong networking skills of the well connected. The people who are the most valuable to the system only end up with more spam from random people trying to reach them.
(This quote was originally mis-attributed (pointed to an aggregator) – this has been corrected.)

Endorsement Issues

Jon Udel writes in The LinkedIn dilemma:

Here’s what stopped me from writing an endorsement for somebody on LinkedIn today: the requirement to define our relationship as one of these choices

The same kind of thing stopped me from joining the identity-badge party at the Digital ID conference recently. I’m bugged by forms that invite or require me to specify the unspecifiable.

I understand the impulse to codify social protocols in software. I’m not at all sure we can do it in ways that preserve the necessary fluidity and fuzziness. But there’s VC money in them thar hills, so I guess we’re going to do the experiment and find out.

Mike on TechDirt writes in The Social Networking Bubble Gets A Bit More Hot Air:

I never got a chance to ask my question about whether some of these “explicit social networking” systems can actually cause harm to real social connections. While both Friendster and LinkedIn claim that since you approve your connections, you guarantee that they’re people you “endorse”. However, that makes it sound like a binary decision. If they’re in your network, you endorse them. That’s not true.

Let’s say I want to contact a hotshot at a big company, and see that he’s connected to a friend of mine. What if (a) that friend is getting so many requests to have people introduce him to the hotshot and (b) he thinks that introducing me to that hotshot will harm his relationship with that hotshot. Instead, he’s now harmed his relationship with me, because now I know, explicitly, that he doesn’t want to introduce me to someone.

Sometimes things are better left unstated, and some of these social networks are going to discover these problems as they expand. Already, I’ve heard of people trying to figure out what to do about people they don’t like adding them to their Friendster network. You don’t want to turn down people and insult them, but each of those connections makes the whole thing less valuable.

Understanding Customers

Justin Hitt has an interesting take that social networking software has more value then establishing new contacts, in his blog How I use social software for stronger business relationships (reg required) :

Right now I’m primarily using these interactions to study the usefulness of such mediums. It seems a lot of people just want to chat about things and the real decision makers aren’t in the systems. At times I’m convinced that social software is a tool of the unproductive, until I met more serious business networks like LinkedIn and Spoke.

Like any community you only get what you put in. The relationship strategies I share here apply in social software environments. I’ve gained new clients and business partners through each network, but that’s not my primary interest of participating. In fact, you should only have one reason of accessing these environments, that one reason is to…

Connect with existing customers to make sure you satisfy their every desire.

I’ve learned more about my existing customers by taking this final step. After focusing on my area of expertise, creating a profile, and seeking to provide value – I have created more return by using social software to improve the relationships I already have.

Explicit Connections

Related to Justin’s comments above, at RatcliffeBlog Mitch Ratcliffe writes in Social Networking Deconstructed about problems with a Spoke referral not working, and adds:

At the same time, what is interesting about the social networking technology is that it forces requests into a semi-public venue, making us think about them more explicitly. I’m not sure that does much in terms of making successful connections today, though it certainly makes the “pain” social networking software hopes to address more explicit.

It remains to be seen if the social networkers will get the capital to learn these lessons, but I am hopeful that they will succeed. In the meantime, it is clear to me that the more purposeful the networking service offered, the more successful it will be in satisfying users’ expectations. If anything, the social networks today are suffering from a lack of clarity about what they offer, so that all sorts of crazy expectations, like the idea that relationships will become frictionless, get lathered onto the term “social networks.”

Social Software researcher Danah Boyd writes in comment to the above article:

I love social networks. They are a part of all of our daily lives and i’m in awe of the sociologists who have dedicated themselves for so many years to figure out how people negotiate them. But as more and more technologists take on the social networks meme, they continue to mutate the concept and thus destroy much of the underlying theory that relies on certain fundamental ideas about interaction.

I have this concern as well – technologists (and coders, cryptographers, economists, and mathematicians) have a habit of taking small trends or behaviors and mapping them identically at all scales, big and small, past and future. Or another way to describe it, they see a tool like a stick of dynamite and want to use it to drive nails and travel to mars. I expect that we don’t know enough about social software dynamics to understand how it works at different scales.

Usefulness of Social Network Services

Mike on TechDirt writes in It’s All about Who You Know:

It certainly seems like there’s a trend to create these types of online “meet markets” for business or for pleasure. Why am I not impressed? First, I remember a similar company from a few years back called sixdegrees.com that had a ridiculous amount of hype before eventually folding. It turns out that many people have fun entering in the names of their friends at first - but very quickly lose interest. No one updates their lists, and no one does much beyond a little poking around. It’s fun to see who your friends know, but most people aren’t comfortable asking friends to be put in touch with their other friends. While it is a core part of networking, these systems often feel like spying on just who your friends’ friends are.

The biggest thing is that the people you know in your network have tremendous value to you. Most people don’t like to give up their rolodex. They know it’s valuable, and they want to keep it in a position where they can leverage it - and not have to worry about random people (even if they know them) sniffing through it. They don’t mind making introductions when they think it makes sense, but they get annoyed when someone approaches them and asks them to make an introduction. Also, there is much more value to me, if someone I know introduces me to someone because they thought it would be good if I knew that person. Any time I got an introduction through a system like LinkedIn, that connection would immediately have lower priority, because I would think that the person trying to contact me specifically tried to track me down - rather than the person linking us realizing that we should talk.

Scott Loftesness wrote me back after my evaluation yesterday to say:

As it turns out, I’ve not actually used LinkedIn much. A couple of weeks ago – after signing up for the service months ago – I got bored on a weekend and went in to look at it again. I found some folks (through just searching for financial services folks) that I knew. I sent them invitations, etc. Probably sent out a total of 40+ invitations (you included). All but a few of those invitations were acceptance – and my network jumped to something over 60 as a result.

In terms of actually using the service, I’ve yet to use it for anything productive for me. I’ve responded to exactly two introduction requests – being in the middle of a five party chain to get from originator to receiver. Both looked legit – and I passed both on and it looks like they’ve been forwarded all the way to the receiver.

I’ve got LinkedIn enabled so that browsing members can contact me directly. I’ve received one inquiry via that route – but it was way off my subject matter expertise so I just responded saying so.

Coincidentally, in the last 2-3 days, I’ve had 2-3 requests to join other people’s LinkedIn networks – after going for many days in between earlier invitations.

Other Services

There are quite a few other services that I haven’t explored yet, like Spoke Software and Zero Degrees, and there are other software or services like Contact Network, InterAction, Plaxo, Skype, Eurekster, Tickle, MeetUp. I hope to take a look at a few of them and report back soon. I don’t think that I’ll be looking at the dating sites such as Match.com, American Singles, Yahoo Personals, etc.

Life With Alacrity

© Christopher Allen