Category Archives: General

The primary goal of social networks is not communication

“The primary goal of a social network is to connect people, to simplify their communication, and to help them stay in touch.” – Alex Iskold on Read/Write Web

This view is widely held by people who have failed to understand Granovetter’s idea of “weak ties” – contacts you can maintain with minimal maintenance. Social networks are not just your friends and your friends’ friends and so on. Social networks are a powerful notion (and “networking” such a powerful activity) because they include people who you can’t really call friends but with whom you have a positive, yet weak, relationship.

People in business don’t network to make friends. You don’t go to a conference, collect business cards and then try to “stay in touch” with everyone afterwards. That’s psychologically impossible except for very remarkable people. You can however maintain weak ties with vastly more people than you can maintain an intimate or even friendly relationship with.

“At the center of Facebook today is the news feed – a dynamic listing of the collective activity of all your friends. The news feed shows updates from your friends, prompting you to explore their profiles and the site. When someone adds an application or befriends someone new or posts a video or a picture, the news feed directs you to their profile page to check it out.”

Iskold’s argument seems to be that Facebook is a bad mix of ideas: more intimate and less professional than LinkedIn, less about communication than MySpace, hence (possibly) doomed to fail. MySpace, he argues, puts communication right at the top of their priorities, whereas Facebook puts mere notifications of all the things your friends are doing at the top of profiles and The Wall, on which friends can write notes, right at the bottom.

If you assume that social networks are about communication, this is disastrous. In my experience though, Facebook hits a real sweet spot. I hated MySpace because it requires almost constant attention to the various messages people sent me, I couldn’t simply respond via email, I had to go read their comments on my profile, go to their profile, read the comment book and add my comment.

Too intense. Too personal. Too much time.

On Facebook, by contrast, I don’t do a lot of communicating and neither do most of my contacts. I have nearly 100 contacts, yet I feel closer to them because I note little things about them in their movie reviews, status updates and new befriendings. Contacts I do talk to a bit to reveal things they might not bother mentioning (getting their citizenship sorted out, having a small bout of seizures) that help me understand and empathize with them better. But contacts from decades ago are finding me and tracing the lines of their lives gives us both a way to become reacquainted from far away without the mandatory two days camping and drinking beer to catch up.

This gentle layer of developing intimacy makes me feel much less awkward about contacting people to ask for help in finding work, getting answers to questions and introducing people. My cold, dead office at LinkedIn on the other hand is characterized by a stony silence.

And all this takes me less than 10 minutes a day, or 20-30 once a week.

The primary goal of a social network is to connect people and help them maintain weak ties, not to simplify communication or help them stay in touch. We have email and IM. Staying in touch with everyone constantly is too much work.