Information Highways, May/June 2004
Can social networks serve business?
"Ok, I just joined network number 6, I think it might be becoming a problem -- intervention anyone?"
Gisela McKay is a Web developer. She's also a fan of social networks. She lists her "Haves" as Skills, Smarts, and Personality but she hasn't figured out what her "Wants" are yet. Judging from her post maybe one of her wants is to find a network that will help her figure that out. Her personal quest raises an interesting question, particularly at this crucial time when social networks are just on the verge -- what does anyone want out of social networks? More specifically, what would the business world list as its "Wants?"
As social networks like Ryze, LinkedIn, Tribe, and most familiarly Friendster become household names, anticipation builds about the effects they will have on socializing, dating, networking, and business. Certainly there's lots of investment interest -- in 2003 Friendster raised $13 million, LinkedIn raised $4.7 million and Tribe raised $6.3 million. User buy-in has also been impressive: LinkedIn recently announced it has pulled in 385,000 users in less than ten months, with a new member every 20 seconds. Friendster boasts 5.3 million members.
While computerized social networking is a 21st century phenomenon, the theory behind it is simply the old school "six degrees of separation," which theorizes that strangers are inevitably linked to each other by six people at most . If you know and trust Peter, and Peter knows and trusts Cecile who knows and trusts Pamela -- then perhaps you too can trust Pamela. So you find a network, register and create a page which can include a photo, pertinent details, even advertising. And then you wait. Or rather, you invite all your friends to join, and then look for people you want to meet -- whether it be fellow fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fellow athletes in training for a triathlon, or even fellow graphic artists from Vancouver. You don't need to limit yourself to one network either, especially since there is a bit of difference between them -- Tribe leans towards classifieds and message boards, Friendster is good for personals and dating, Ryze and LinkedIn are geared towards making business contacts.
Like most new ventures, online social networking will take some trial and error to figure out. For instance many networks are limiting the degrees of separation to four, since the further along the chain you get, the less likely you are to automatically trust the people you meet, and social networking threatens to fall apart. So while one Friend Of A Friend (FOAF) may be easily trusted, the reliability of FOAFOAFOAFOAFs are more difficult to gauge. With the more prolific members numbering their potential Friends in the thousands, networks can become unwieldy. David Galbraith, co-founder of start-up MRL Ventures with PayPal founder Max Levchin, says that although he knows he can make good connections, he also knows he has his limits. "I am not particularly interested in degrees of freedom beyond two," he states. "If social networking is about six degrees of freedom, then I am not that interested."
Network to get work?
"The beauty of online networking," says Carolyn Burke, "is the level of trust." Burke is the CEO of Integrity Incorporated, an information security policy consulting firm in Toronto, and a speaker at the 2004 Information Highways Conference. She's also the regional chair of Ryze Toronto, a branch of the more business-oriented Ryze.com social network. As Burke describes Ryze, "the site helps you profile your own interests, invite your own friends -- business, social and family -- who you already know in real life and find others with similar or complimentary interests. Because you add your friends into the site and network through them to other people as you go, there is a higher level of trust than you might have meeting total strangers." The aim is to develop a tolerable "signal to noise" ratio. Want to connect with someone but aren't sure? Ask for an introduction and a reference.
Do the connections really work? Burke says that she hired her accountant through Ryze and is going to meet someone she met through the site when she's on holiday this year. Others join to find lost friends, old schoolmates, business colleagues, or even people in the news. When a network is based on geographical nearness, it has the added advantage of offering real life meetings. Burke has a contract through Ryze to run monthly business networking mixers. Attendees are given the opportunity to view the RSVP list in advance and are encouraged to meet between three to five people over the evening. Next-day reviews are glowing.
While networks like Ryze are slowly making social networking a business proposition, some say the business-to-business potential is only just beginning to show itself. Chris Tolles is the vice president of marketing at Spoke Software, a key social networking software provider. He explains that Spoke is connecting individual business professionals, workgroups and enterprises to opportunities through their relationships. "Our applications increase deal close rates, deal velocity and revenue per customer," he says. "While the software can be delivered privately behind the firewall, it can also interact and federate data from a public network. People want to utilize both their personal and co-worker relationships in sales and we've noticed that people are using our application to get better information through others, instead of just trying to get access. Several companies are likely to emerge that base their businesses on social network analysis."
Just as an email address and Web site were once status symbols, now it's being in a social network that counts. Yet there are some growing pains. One of the latest entries to the social networking field is Orkut. While it has the backing of Internet giant Google and gains major coolness points by being invitation-only, it is also the example that proves that the rush to be a "cool kid" has its downside. Ben Hammersley, a writer for the Guardian, is a member of many sites. "When I got my first Orkut invitation," he says, "some 20 or so hours in, I found all the usual suspects. The thing is, I already know these people. I don't need to network with them any more. They're wandering from site to site trying to find a reason to stay." Fellow networker Chris Heathcote, a customer experience manager with a focus on social software at the European telecommunications company Orange, agrees that the same people show up all the time. He bemoans the lack of innovation at Orkut.
Another potential concern and curiosity of social networking are the notorious Fakesters. Stanton McCandish, an online usability and PR specialist, belongs to ten online networks. For the most part, he enjoys the experience, although he does rage against what he calls "the capricious, dictatorial and non-response administration of the system." It seems that some networkers sign up with alter egos with names like Wonder Woman, Los Angeles, and Pure Evil. These "Fakesters" as they call themselves, see their fake profile building as creative and clever undertaking. Administrators see otherwise, swooping down and deleting profiles by the dozen. This is hardly democracy, say the Fakesters, who claim identity is provisional and see themselves as defending the right to preserve public identities. Yet in a network based on trust it is also easy to see how fictional profiles could increase suspicion among users.
If belonging to a network of friends can expedite business interaction, then social networking has a bright business future. Right now there is no cost to join the heavily invested networks, although advanced services carry a fee. Once the technology has wider acceptance, it's likely that users will have to pay for completed connections. Inside the firewall, there is also a great potential for social networking to provide employees with an opportunity to mine the resources that may not be obvious at the water cooler or through daily email. Beyond the firewall, it may be the way to greater innovation through cooperation and collaboration of ideas and higher sales potential. Spoke Software's Chris Tolles and MRL Venture's David Galbraith both feel that with time social networking will become a lasting part of the fabric of the Internet. Larger and more successful sites will swallow the smaller ones and tighten up the market. People will own their profile rather than have it exist within one or another public site. And like email, online social networking will become part of our everyday lives.
The Small World Experiment
Ever wondered how the phrase six degrees of separation came to be? In 1967, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a seminal experiment to test the hypothesis that members of any large social network (in his case, the population of the United States) would be connected to each other through acquaintances. In order to test this contention, Milgram asked a few hundred randomly selected individuals in Nebraska and Kansas to send packages to two target individuals identified only by name, occupation and approximate location. The initial recipients were told to send the package to someone they knew (on a first-name basis) who might be in a better position to pass it along to the addressee. Milgram tracked the packages, and his shocking results determined that on average it took between five and seven steps to get the package to its donor, generating the concept of "six degrees of separation."
Naturally Milgram's research has been the subject of debate ever since, and repeat experiments have attempted in the age of the Internet to verify his results. One group to tackle the small world problem recently is based at Columbia University and online at http://smallworld.columbia.edu/. Their first experiment challenged more than 60,000 e-mail users to reach one of 18 target persons in 13 countries by forwarding messages to acquaintances. Their findings confirmed that social searches can reach their targets in a median of five to seven steps, although small variations in chain lengths and participation rates generate large differences in target reachability. They also determined that successful social searches are conducted primarily through intermediate to weak relationships, do not require highly connected "hubs" to succeed, and disproportionately rely on professional relationships.
Network of Networks
Not sure which to join? Here's a list of the more popular Web-based social networks to get you started:
Janice Pearson is a freelance writer and editor who divides her time between Toronto, Canada and London, UK. She builds online networking into her day as a way of maintaining sanity and a bank balance.
The Best for last: Zaadz.com