People seem to be missing the really big picture of the value of social media and really the Internet for that matter. They look at how current social networking sites work and how online and offline relationships currently work and make the assumption that this represents the value proposition.
Case in point the recent HBR blog post: The Social Media Bubble, by Umair Haque where he advances the following hypothesis:
Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn't connecting us as much as we think it is. It's largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.
Call it relationship inflation. Nominally, you have a lot more relationships — but in reality, few, if any, are actually valuable. Just as currency inflation debases money, so social inflation debases relationships. The very word "relationship" is being cheapened. It used to mean someone you could count on. Today, it means someone you can swap bits with.
Thin relationships are the illusion of real relationships.
The promise of the Internet wasn't merely to inflate relationships, without adding depth, resonance, and meaning. It was to fundamentally rewire people, communities, civil society, business, and the state — through thicker, stronger, more meaningful relationships.
I would agree that the primary goal for most social networking sites today is to help produce deeper relationships and build new online communities. BUT that’s not where the real value is. And thinking the goal is to build deeper relationships is missing the point.
The Real Value
For me, the BIG value lies not in “deep” but in leveraging the breadth and time-and-place independent access to other people.
Umair gets it wrong when he says “the Internet isn't connecting us as much as we think it is” … As compared to pre-Internet, how easy is it to connect with people you know or even people you don’t know. For your closest set of contacts, maybe things haven’t changed. You could make an argument that people are more available via IM, cell phones, texting, etc. Of course, the BIG change is that it’s 10x to 100x times easier to connect with people who fall outside of that immediate close network.
In my post on Visible Networking, I talk to why in-person networking is generally time-inefficient and often a questionable return on your time. It takes 3-4 hours of time to meet up with only a few people who are from a small pool of candidates.
Consider this as an alternative:
- A 24x7 networking cocktail party with 60M+ people
- Everyone has various kinds of background information and interests expressed
- You can come and go as you please
Pretty damn cool if you ask me. And if you compare access based on the 24x7 network to a meeting with 100 people and randomly meeting some subset of them, you realize how lame that model is in comparison. Sure there’s serendipitous meetings, but you’ll have much more targeted connections through the 24x7 network.
But the 24x7, 60M person cocktail party definitely changes the questions and problems.
- How do you navigate 60M people to find the right people for you to talk to?
- How do you ensure that both parties get value?
Everything is Matching
The real promise comes about as we get better tools for navigating all of this. Let’s consider some questions I might have:
- I want to find a co-founder for my startup.
- I want to find people who can help me with ideas around the business model for my startup idea.
- I want to talk to people with experience with X.
If you know me - which you might not because you only have a thin relationship :) – you know that I’m going to say that a lot of this comes back to Matching Algorithms. There are many, very interesting and very complex matching problems that need to get solved. Some days I start to feel that everything is matching. Product purchases. Business deals. It’s all about finding the right fit. Well it’s also knowing what kind of match you need. And it’s knowing how to communicate with potential matches. But the heart is filtering down from the 60M into the few that it really makes sense for you to connect with.
Some of this is relatively easy today such as leveraging LinkedIn for Finding Expertise (see also LinkedIn Guide for Knowledge Workers). If you have a particular question and want to vet the idea, you can likely find someone through LinkedIn to provide feedback.
But other matching algorithms are still quite hard:
- Companies to employees
- Business deals
That said, we are quickly growing more and more information on background of individuals, tweets, blog posts, social bookmarking, Facebook activity, presentations shared, etc. This forms a pretty interesting picture of each person’s knowledge and experience.
What we don’t really have today is as good expression of their interests and willingness to get involved in different ways. I’m interested at some level in co-founding startups if they fit the right criteria. There are a few sites that theoretically help you find co-founders, but my experience is that there’s much more to it than what you currently get with those sites. Still, over time we will begin to see all kinds of ways to express your interests in business deals, employment opportunities, cofounding businesses, conversations, etc. This is really your expression of complex matching criteria.
Once we combine a rich and robust picture of expertise and knowledge along with these complex matching criteria, then finding and helping facilitate very interesting relationships becomes possible.
But it also makes the existing reliance on intermediaries less important. What? The depth of existing relationships will become less important.
Instead, there’s a need for some kind of rating, expression of experience, reviews, etc.
The real innovation and true value creation is going to occur around taking the massive network with little to no existing relationships and helping to find matches, foster conversation, and build relationships where they make sense. We want more eHarmony’s in the world.
Ignore what social networks and social media looks like today. Ignore all the information that’s been written about business networking.
Instead, go solve the big interesting problem: Social Media Matching.
Oh, and if you are working on that, I’m interested in being involved. :)