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When social networks die…

7 March 2008

I found myself saying to a colleague this morning, “Orkut has gone the way of Friendster.” We were mulling over the reasons why certain social networks last, while others go the way of the summer fling.

I’ll admit it, I join every social network I see, more or less. If there’s anything particularly intriguing about a site, I’ll throw my hat into the ring. And I’ve found that the networks that I continue to use are the ones that offer me something other than social networking as a primary draw. Why do I still use Flickr? Because no matter what computer I’m on, no matter where in the world I am, I can find my pictures. While I’m not a knitter, I have learned from Ravelry members that it’s the bees knees, not primarily because of the other people, but because it offers tools to knitters that they’ve not had before — at least not at this level. The fact that there are other people in the Ravelry world to share with is just the proverbial icing.

Having things in common isn’t enough to sustain a social networking relationship. Perhaps it is in the real world — you can sit down over coffee and talk about the finale of The Wire, or the silly Olympics logo. But asynchronous relationships based on two-dimensional interactions are transient. There’s not much to hold your interest, and plenty of other shiny things to distract you.

For a social network to be really meaningful, it has to first be in service to the individual member somehow. It has to draw the user to it for a reason other than connecting with other people. Interest in Facebook (or is it facebook?) is waning, but it hasn’t tanked as quickly as Friendster (or mySpace) because someone is always sending you a new app, or a Zombie Bite, or an invitation to a game of Scrabble. But I sense even that will lose its appeal soon enough.

So, what explains the popularity and sustained success of LinkedIn? I’m still not sure how it fits into the paradigm. LinkedIn is different things for different people. For me, it’s a place to keep a skeleton copy of my c.v., and a place to keep track of people I am not regularly in touch with — so if someone’s email address changes, I’ll still be able to find her. For recruiters, it has very little to do with the social networking, and a lot about the résumé. Perhaps that’s the answer, then — it’s the Flickr of résumés. It’s a place for me to maintain a pointer to me, in case anyone’s looking for me. My relationships with others on LinkedIn are less important to me than my own details…but it sure is fun to find old friends from high school, and see where they ended up.

I guess the lesson learned here is, social networking for the sake of it, simply to exploit similarities in relationships, will always be short-lived. Anticipation, then excitement, then early adoption, then critical mass, then waning. It’s the relationships based on more than just proximity (even virtual proximity) that really seem to last.

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