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Ping-pong on social networks

What is a social network? That’s the topic of an interesting pair of ping-pong posts between Om Malik, and Liz Gannes.  Om observes that social networking applications are popping up “like mushrooms after a monsoon”, and sharply critiques most as tired variations on MySpace or Facebook.  Too true.  He asks if they are simply a feature of another application.  Riffing on Om’s theme, Liz tries to construct a taxonomy of social networks.  She divides the world into blank slate networks, like MySpace; target audience networks, presumably based on demographics; existing interest networks, perhaps like Flixster; and social tools like LinkedIn.

Let’s be clear.  Liz’ latter category of social networking applications and tools, like LinkedIn, bring fresh value to users.  MySpace et al, and variations organized around interests, or demographics, are simply today’s version of (take your pick) the 1980’s Compuserve forum or the WELL, or the 1990’s Usenet newsgroup / AOL chat room / personal home page.  They are virtual places to hang out with friends.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but their popularity is just the latest fad in online networking. Something new will pass them by.

We humans are social. Social networking applications are simply technology tools that help us to express that social characteristic in a new medium.  As such, social networks have become and are destined to continue features of many different applications. The highest value social networks, however, transcend the simple sharing of common interests. Examples:

  • xBox Live is a social networking and communications tool constructed around gaming.  xBox live is about gaming, not just hanging out with your buds.
  • LinkedIn is a social networking and communications tool constructed around business introductions.  LinkedIn is about finding people with common business needs and/or knowledge.
  • iotum Talk-Now is a social networking and communications tool constructed around business communications.  Talk-Now is about more efficient communications, facilitating business.

Only one of those three applications are based on the web — LinkedIn.  xBox Live works via the xBox game console.  iotum Talk-Now is a Blackberry application. In addition, none have the primary function of socializing, personal expression, or chat.  Rather they are tools which exploit the users’ network of contacts as a means to another end. 

The real promise of social networking applications is in these new high value applications, rather than re-inventing the local pub or mall online.  And that’s why social networking is a feature, as opposed to an application in and of itself.

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