The Social Networking Buzz

23 Apr 2004|Added Value

Every so often, people in the valley start to talk about a new buzzword. Lately, social networking has been the buzzword. The growth and prevalence of social networking sites, such as Friendster and Linkedin, Orkut, and Tribe is generating serious curiosity from many folks in the business community. But are we all talking about the same things? And where does the newness lay? In using the online medium to meet others for business, to date, or in the use of these particular sites? Why does the business community care so much about the phenomena?

If people are looking at “viral” or online grassroots marketing, there exists several mediums and ways of carrying out these strategies that extend beyond these social networking sites. Do we believe that people are increasingly becoming more networked? Have our lives become so compartmentalized and isolated that we have no time to meet others outside of off hours in the night behind our laptops in our bedrooms? If the main objective of the business community is promoting word of mouth regarding products or services, then the dynamics of word of mouth within networks is the more serious question to explore. The question becomes: is it possible for companies to identify network leaders through social networking sites and learn about how those folks are influencing others? What drives them to share a product or service as a part of natural conversation? What would be a natural incentive in this context. Clearly a refer a friend and get a $50 discount would fail drastically in such an environment.

I am becoming convinced that we don’t know what we are talking about and may be missing the greater picture. Different kinds of communities have existed offline and online for some time now. Formal organizations, cliques, associations, and so forth have been around. Networking is also an activity that we have all been engaging in for some time, especially those of us in the business world. We should at least distinguish between: 1) Using different community sites to drive word of mouth; and 2) Studying social networking sites to learn about how technology and new social trends are shifting the nature of social relationships.

And clearly there are other questions. At a social networking theory class at Stanford, a graduate student made the keen observation that it seemed that the activity on business networking sites are “utilaritarian”, in contrast to activity that appears to generate “connectedness” among people.

Is “connectedness” in and of itself a motivation? If people are asking others to confirm their popularity or acknowledge their importance in the world, do we call that “connectedness”? Where do we draw the line between the two? In the end, are we all becoming self-promotion animals?

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