Few concepts in recent memory have generated more interest among consumer researchers than social networking software, the catch-all phrase for (mostly) online tools which allow people to connect with friends and colleagues, friends of colleagues, acquaintances of friends of colleagues and the hairdressers of bowling partners of acquaintances of friends of colleagues.
By connecting us to our FOAFs, (shorthand for friends of a friend) Web sites like Friendster, LinkedIn, Orkut, Ryze and dozens of other similar competitors promise to humanize the impersonal Internet, and help us make the most of our existing relationships. And the pitch seems to be working. According to some sources, about 1 in 4 white-collar workers in the U.S. has seen, used or been invited to use a piece of social software in the past year. There are even social networking sites, such as Dogster.com, that will help your trusty mutt meet that fine French poodle down the street.
For those interested in consumer insight, the promise of such software is tantalizing. By exposing and quantifying our intricate social arrangements, marketers can, in theory, gain understanding of exactly who wields power and influence in our lives, what information is shared in our communities, and who does the sharing. By tapping into such networks, analysts could make detailed, real-time measurements of the durability, reciprocity, intensity, longevity and value of our social attitudes and relationships.
In other words, they're a potential gold mine for marketers and product developers. Want to release a new product? Don't waste time speaking to thousands of people, just focus on finding those hub folks who will spread the news around their social network. Looking to reach a difficult segment of the market? Don't speak to them directly, find the folks who are separated from your target by just one degree. With enough social networking analysis, such precise feats of marketing kung fu should become de rigueur.
Like most things digital, however, the reality is much more complicated than the promise. For one thing, social networking sites don't just bring our relationships to the surface they change them. By making our associations visible, such sites imbue our connections with an extra dimension of status, and shortly thereafter, competition. As people move from creating to collecting online friends, the value of individual relationships can be diminished. Most sites today can't distinguish between the best man at your wedding and some bloke you met five minutes ago, and because liaisons are so easy to form, online networks are often noisier than their offline counterparts. In extreme cases, people who don't have enough friends online will sometimes invent them so as to appear more influential then they actually are. (These phantoms are dubbed fakesters.) But collecting too many friends, real or imagined, has its consequences, too. I treat people who have 200 online friends the same way I would treat people who have 200 sex partners, says one prominent online community participant. Enough said.
Things get even more interesting when members of an online community are exposed to quantitative measurement of their relationships. A perfect example of this recently happened in the blogosphere, the loosely connected Web of self-published diarists.
To understand the story, one has to keep in mind that blogs (short for Weblogs, or individual Web pages which are typically updated daily with diary-style entries) were one of the first manifestations of the post-dot-com economy. Blogs came to prominence as hundreds of thousands of eager young Internet entrepreneurs, recently separated from their collapsing startups, sought a new online channel for their creative efforts. A blog was just the ticket for a person with technical skills, a taste for self-reflection and lots of time on her hands, and they took off like wildfire. (The first social networking sites, which followed shortly thereafter, were perfectly suited to those same dot-commers returning to the job market after their involuntary hiatus.)
Not surprisingly, the social mythology of the bloggers was akin to one person, one vote. Unlike hype-riddled companies they had just left behind, bloggers believed their community to be democratic and noncommercial, with everyone paying equal attention to everyone else.
The reality, it was soon discovered, was dramatically different. After analyzing the data from Technorati.com, a site that measures the linking relationships between blogs, analyst Clay Shirky discovered that the distribution of blogs wasn't anything like the meritocracy that was imagined it was more like a seventh-grade popularity contest. A tiny number of the most popular blogs seemed to be getting more and more popular each day, while everyone else's seemed to be falling increasingly into irrelevance. Underneath the communitarian rhetoric, the blogosphere was becoming as hierarchical and star-studded as Hollywood.
In response, blog-ranking sites like Technorati began to change their linking practices, seeking ways to identify not simply the most trafficked blogs, but the most interesting, or the ones that generate a disproportionate amount of activity for their relative size or age. In other words, when the community became aware of its own quantitative structure, it changed its social practices to better reflect its stated values. Call it the Hiesenberg(ster) Principle: you cannot measure an online social network without changing it.
Even with these qualifications, the benefits of social networking software are so significant that it is destined to become a major part of everyone's future Internet experience. What will likely change, however, is where and how we access these networks. Today's variants aren't businesses in their own right just features of other products. It's no wonder that both Google and Microsoft have recently soft-launched their own social networking applications; each believes that social networking tools will be a critical part of their future offerings. You can envision managing your social and professional network and FOAFs, in a panel of Microsoft Outlook 2006. That gives market researchers about two years to learn the tools, methods and best practices of social network analysis. But don't worry, my cousin's plumber's golf buddy knows a guy.
Andrew Zolli of Z + Partners, is a forecaster and design strategist, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org