I’ve been reading a lot about social media recently, and just found an excellent presentation by Paul Adams, a Sr. User Experience researcher at Google, that takes a look at real life social networks and compares them to online social networks. It highlights just how much the current online social networking experience falls short of what we expect based on our real world interactions.
His main point is that current social networks mistakenly dump everyone you know into a giant bucket, called “friends”, and that this is completely unlike anyone’s social network in the real world. Not only is this as ill-advised as inviting everyone you know (work friends, drinking buddies, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends) to a single party, but it’s also wrong in that most people in most people’s networks would not even be described by them as friends – many are co-workers, alumni of the same high school etc. Nevertheless this is where we are today. The workaround for this situation is to take on the onerous work of maintaining separate identities online. The non-workaround is to say the-hell-with-it, and realize after you’ve spent a year fruitlessly looking for work that you still have an album of photos in your Facebook account of you throwing up on other people at parties.
There are of course a lot of cantankerous old people and conspiracy theorists (I’m looking at you Maya) who realize this model is pretty messed up, which is why four NYU students were able to raise $200,000 in funding on KickStarter to start building a new social network that would give users control of their own personal information rather than hosting it on a 3rd party like Facebook, or broadcasting it to the entire world like Twitter.
But I think businesses should be equally concerned with rushing into advertising and marketing in the messy and relatively untargeted world of current social networks and on the Internet at large, and should also be throwing some of their weight behind a better alternative. Companies may have the same or greater difficulties maintaining separate identities for their products online, especially if they appeal to different and perhaps conflicting market segments.
And, as Paul points out in his presentation, recommendations from “strong ties” are an order of magnitude more effective than those from people who are further removed. Marketing via social networks today is perhaps closer to leveraging the circle of trust, but there is a whole new level to take it to which will benefit both consumers and businesses. Everyone down from the Unilevers and P&G’s of the world should be considering (and possibly investing in) new models that protect individual privacy and support real relationships over click-to-friend relationships. The days of 10,000 “friends” are numbered.
I highly recommend reading the entire Paul Adams presentation if you have any interest in such things (which is likely if you’ve read this far):
Both of the images below are from the presentation.
The (broken) model of current social networking sites
The real-world model of relationships proposed by Adams