networking site,” because it isn’t about social
relationships. Rather, it is concerned mainly
with business and professional relationships.
One useful feature is just helping keep
track of how to get in touch with people you
know—if they didn’t tell you their new email
address, you can still reach them via LinkedIn.
(Disclaimer: I have been using LinkedIn for a
while, but only as a regular member.)
But LinkedIn goes further: It provides ways
to use the network, not just the direct links.
Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet,
described this effect in what is now known as
“Metcalfe’s Law”: The value of a communications network is proportional to the square of
the number of nodes. LinkedIn provides tools
that let you send a message to someone indirectly, by using a chain of links in the network. For example, if you’re looking for a job
at company X, you can search LinkedIn for
someone at the company, perhaps in the division or group you’re interested in. You might
not know anyone there, but maybe it turns out
that you know someone who does. Perhaps
there’s a longer chain that gets there. Using the
network, you can send a message that can be
forwarded along the chain, with each link
going between people who do know each
other. Sometimes, people may decline to forward the message. But the overall value is
much greater than what you get from the people you link to directly.
An interesting question about all of these is:
How many do you need?
That is, what is the value in belonging to
different social networking sites (using the term
in the broad sense)? This isn’t very clear now.
From an individual’s point of view, each new
site is new overhead—another profile to fill
out, another place to upload your
email address book, photos, and
so on. The question is whether or
not there’s enough value there compared to other sites you’re on.
Recently, I’ve been getting more invi-
tations to different professional networking
sites. Do they add anything to what I already
have? The main value seems to be that they
are used by some people who have my email
address in their address book, and it’s a useful
link to have. But with only a few, it doesn’t
seem compelling. With a lot, it might be.
These different approaches to “social networking” suggest that more is going on here
than is captured by a single term. In many
cases, what is missing is context, or the more
complex structure of real social networks. I’d
venture to guess that the structure of social
networks for (say) college students is simpler
than the structure of social networks for people who have been working for a while, have
professional relationships, and a wider range
of personal interactions.
For example, consider a working parent,
who has been out of college for about 15
years. He or she is part of many “social networks” in the non-technical sense, such as
current colleagues, colleagues from previous
jobs, friends from college, a high school
reunion class, a college reunion class, other
parents on the kids’ soccer teams, other parents in the kids’ classes, volunteer organizations, and so on. There’s probably some
overlap in those networks, but a page on
MySpace doesn’t begin to capture the distinctions in that network at all. Indeed, as more
people who know each other socially join a
more network-structured site such as
LinkedIn, the distinctions can get blurred.
What we’ve seen is that the combination of
capabilities on sites like MySpace or
Facebook, such as messaging, keeping in
touch, sharing photos and videos, and so on,
are a powerful set of tools for many kinds of
groups. Making it possible for those groups to
come together, whether for a soccer season or
a lifetime, is an interesting and innovative~use of the Internet. We should see more of it.
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