by Bernard Golden

The Social Networking Dilemma

Jan 29, 20085 mins
Enterprise Applications

If you’re like me, you get a ton of invitations to join social networks. If you’re not like me (and I hope you’re not, in this respect), you know what to do with these invitations. Therein lies my dilemma.

I’ve never really figured out what to do with social networking. Regular old physical networking, I get. But the purpose of social networking — that I’m not sure of. Whenever I talk to someone about LinkedIn, I ask “how do you use it?” because I would love to leverage a new tool to make my business life more efficient. The answer — invariably — is “I’ve heard that you can use it to” with some variation on reaching out to people you don’t know. The key to those statements is the “I’ve heard” part; in other words, they aren’t using it to do anything, but they think someone else might be.

The dilemma comes in with each invitation. I don’t necessarily see how I can use social networking, but when a friend or acquaintence invites me to link to them … well, I don’t want to be ungracious, so I accept the invitation, all the while feeling that there’s some part of the story I just don’t get.

It’s even worse with the proliferation of these networks. Last year I started to get invitations to link to people on Facebook (by the way, my absolute favorite part of Facebook is the dialog box that pops up to ask how you know the person; one of the options is “we hooked up,” which strikes me as a rather pallid euphemism if it means what I think it means — and if it does mean what I think it means, why would you possibly want to advertise that fact?). But again, I didn’t want to offend anyone by not accepting their invitation, so now I had a second social network I belonged to that I didn’t get how I could leverage.

And then last week I got three invitations to join NotchUp, which promised to be a site to help me manage my career. According to an article in the paper, NotchUp is a new site for “passive job seekers” that lets you post your experience and set a fee for being willing to take a job interview. The article notes that NotchUp only had 10,000 members last week; my three contacts is a pretty high percentage of total membership, so I should be flattered, I suppose; on the other hand, perhaps my colleagues were gently hinting that I should go get a job?

This time, however, I drew the line. Despite my desire to be gracious to people I know, I didn’t want to go through yet another signup, another invitation to fill out a bunch of information, knowing that it would inevitably lead to a bunch more emails to do more work to “make my experience even better.”

Which leads me to the biggest part of my dilemma. These sites all want me to do a bunch of work and provide them with value, all so I can putatively gain some benefit. Even worse, they pretty much target the information people provide — but that information may not be (even probably isn’t) the information I’d like to get from my network. As an example, over the holidays I wanted to purchase a digital camera. Now, I would be very interested in finding out what people I respect have bought and what experience they’ve had with different digital cameras, but most of these sites (especially the business-oriented ones) don’t have a place for that kind of information; they are focused on having people input where they work, what technologies they’ve used in their jobs, and so on.

In other words, the social networking paradigm is too restrictive. I want to network with people on a whole range of topics, most of which I don’t even know I’m interested in before I’m interested in them (I wasn’t interested in peoples’ opinions about digital cameras until I wanted to buy one — then I was extremely interested in their opinions). Trying to squeeze my social networking into pre-defined categories, or to use them as the site where I store relevant data that I’d like to share with the world, just seems wrong-headed. Why should I be forced to allow some company to own my information? I think social networking needs a different approach, one where I choose where to put my information — whether my own blog, a product review site, a forum that is focused on an interest of mine — that allows my network access to the information, in a way that is controlled by me.

A better approach would be to tie together all these sites via openid, which could serve as the glue to bind together all the information. This allows anyone access that I want to allow access to, while not forcing allegiance to one social networking site or another. That way, I could get the benefit of social networking without all the folderol of signing up to multiple sites, filling out a bunch of information I don’t want to have to, and allowing them to “own” my data.