Mistakes vs. Lessons, Masculine vs. Feminine
Blogosphere vs. LinkedInosphere: Free vs. Restricted Association

The Fun, Utility and Frustration of Social Networking Systems

The MIT Enterprise Panel on Social Networking in Bellevue this week was engaging, entertaining, and edifying.  Mike Flynn (publisher, Puget Sound Business Journal) moderated the interview-style panel discussion with Liz Lawley (professor, RIT, and "A-list" blogger), Bill Bryant (CEO, mophone) and Konstantin Quericke (Co-founder and VP Marketing, LinkedIn).  I chose the title for this post based on my general observation that Bill was representing a social networking service that is primarily focused on fun (with a demographic target of 15-30 year olds), Konstantin was representing a service that focuses on business utility (targeting the 30-65 age range), and Liz shared many of her frustrations with many/all of these social networking services (SNS). 

Heidi Drivdahl introduced the panel, with a reference to 43 things, a goal-based SNS I've blogged about before, highlighting how one might use this service to help get a sense of a place, e.g., contrasting the three most popular goals in Seattle with the three most popular goals in Omaha.  Mike then conducted an audience-participation experiment in "offline" social networking by askng three carefully chosen attendees (of the 200 present) to stand up, then asking each person who knew one or more of these three people to stand up, and then asking each person who knew anyone standing up to stand up.  Nearly everyone in the room was standing ... though I was a bit concerned about whether this may have increased the feeling of isolation or exclusion among the many "first-timers" who were in the room ... a few of whom were still seated at the end of the experiment.  In any case, it was a compelling demonstration of how connected we are ... and [for me] how that connectedness often remains hidden.

The panelists had many interesting gems to share throughout the evening, and their interactions added a lively dimension to the proceedings.  One of the key issues that arose -- repeatedly -- was initially articulated by Liz: the nuances, subtlety and ambiguity that exists in our interactions and relationships in the real world is not well-represented in the interfaces provided by any SNS.  Bill claimed that this was a generational issue, noting that MySpace doesn't need nuance and that Rupert Murdoch's US$580M investment demonstrates that nuance-free services can be very successful.  Liz responded that the relatively young (and inexperienced) users of MySpace aren't concerned about nuance because "they haven't been burned yet", suggested that MySpace may be a friendster-like fad, and with respect to the investment, invoked the concept of a "bubble" in a rather blunt way.

The need for -- and lack of -- nuance in these systems may also be a gender-related issue, as Liz noted that women are not well represented among the movers and shakers in the social computing space (as evidenced by only 7 women among the 107 speakers at Web 2.0).  Konstantin admitted that only one third of the 3.8M LinkedIn users are women, and they have an explicit goal to increase that proportion to 50%.  One feature intended to make the service more appealing to women is the absence of user photographs as an explicit design decision, to reduce the likelihood that people would browse photos and use business pretexts in LinkedIn for, er, non-business goals (and although he used the example of men cyberstalking attractive women, he did say that such uses could expand beyond such stereotypical heterosexual orientations ... especially given that the company is headquartered in [stereotypically omnisexual] San Francisco).  Bill noted that Mophone has been in public beta for only three weeks, and its userbase is in the thousands (perhaps tens of thousands), so in my view it's too early to tell what kinds of gender-based differences will emerge in the use of that service.

The last issue I'll note here is that of interoperability among social networking services.  Liz highlighted the need for open standards, saying that if the door is locked, she doesn't want to come in, and contrasting the interoperability of instant messaging and SNS with that of email (though a commentator from the audience noted that email systems and subnets were not interoperable in the early days of computer networking).  Konstantin said that LinkedIn wants to move more toward an API model, so that developers can write applications on top of the LinkedIn network (a step toward interoperability ... if that API is adopted by other SNS providers).  Although this didn't arise in the panel discussion, Mophone is a service that is not tied to any particular wireless carrier and supports a variety of phones, although it's too early to tell yet whether mophone will achieve the critical mass that is more critical to the success of any SNS than it is for some other technology-enabled services industries.

Harking back to the title I chose for this post, I think it's interesting that LinkedIn is not [primarily] intended to be fun, and mophone is not intended to be useful (in the business sense), and wonder what this implies about the "price" of maturity in this culture.  There is an increasing awareness of the business value of engaging the passions and emotions -- of employees, partners and customers.  I hope that we will see more convergence between fun and utility -- in social networking services and other technologies -- and believe that such a convergence will require a concomittant decrease in the potential frustrations encountered in the use of such tools. 

In fact, I think I'll post creating a social networking service that is fun and useful as a new goal among my 43 things.

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