Tragedy of the Social Networking Commons — and the fixes

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about online social networks (like orkut, Friendster,, etc.), and am increasingly wondering not IF they can work, but rather, HOW and in what way.

One of the most complicated and interesting issues, in my mind, is that of how the social networking services (SNs) reposition and provide access to various social strata… layers of ordinary folks, the down-and-out, the meek, the powerful, and poor, and the rich.

Are SNs the great leveler? Or do they — or will they — simply replicate the strata and their boundaries that exist in the Real World? How will they evolve to keep people from all ends of the have/have-not spectrum interested and engaged?

Take, for example, a famous company’s CEO. He’s smart, he’s powerful, he’s rich… and many, many people want to ‘network’ with him. Some want advice, others want information, and yet others want something more tangible… a job at his firm, or even an outright handout.

What does this mean, then, for this CEO when he joins a social networking service? With few exceptions, he is laying himself bare and putting a sign over his unprotected self: “Take advantage of me!” After all, pretty much anyone can send him messages, and while he can hit delete delete delete, such indiscriminate filtering sucks away time and energy and potential.

So, too, could he implement a gatekeeper… either an electronic one on the SNs that support it (e.g., accept only messages from 2nd-degree friends-of-friends), or a human one (have his secretary screen all incoming messages).

But in either of the gatekeeper examples above, he has essentially neutralized one of the very advantages of the SNs — unfettered access to people of different backgrounds.

The challenge, then, becomes one of finding an effective compromise.

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I’ve found myself on both sides of the fence quite often. Due to my online presence, I get dozens of e-mails monthly asking for Web design advice, marketing help, and so on. In general, I’m happy to offer what I can, but I’ve increasingly found myself the recipient of barely-disguised spams (“I was wondering if you had any advice for my great Make Money Fast Network…”) or people who couldn’t bother to take two seconds to read my profile or even get my name right (Hint: It’s Adam, not Alan).

On the flip side, I’ve innundated dozens of folks with questions about their careers and their companies in order to explore various job options and opportunities.

Early on, things seemed to work out decently. I could e-mail CEOs and VPs and various PowerPlayers(tm) without fearing that they’d been bugged 70 times already that week. I made a sincere effort to do my homework ahead of time, tried to offer something of value myself, and always, ALWAYS wrote a highly-personalized introduction letter.

But those early days are just a faded memory now for most SNs, it seems. I get the distinct impression that many of my (IMHO) thoughtful messages today find their only audience in some Recycle Bin… and I’ve noticed more and more PowerPlayers disabling their incoming message box, removing salient identifying information from their profiles (including company name), and basically, well, making themselves unavailable.

Which then, it worries me, seems to portend a Social Networking Service Tragedy of the Commons. The harder it becomes to reach people one might want to network with, the broader net one is likely to cast. The broader the net, the more messages each person up the ‘power ladder’ is likely to be flooded with, adding to the spiral towards unhappy saturation.

* * *

A whole lot of different things could help, of course:

1) Technological throttling
SNs should make it difficult, if not impossible, to send messages to more than [x] people at a time, or more than [y] people in a given short time period. Or perhaps, as some thoughtful forum software packages have implemented, restrict people from sending more than [z] messages without first getting a response back; in this way, folks must craft messages worth responding to or risk getting shut out of further messaging.

2) Collaborative filtering
If enough people click on the ‘bozo’ button after receiving yet another unsolicited message about the joys of Amway, ideally that person would either have their account revoked, or at least messaging privileges suspended.

3) Effective etiquette education
From an early age, we learn that certain behaviors are not to be tolerated and are not part of civil society. MOST folks would not call a list of CEOs at home during dinner hour to ask for a job. Yet these same people seem to have no concerns about similarly annoying large bulks of people via online messaging.

4) A stronger foundation of trust
Some SNs, such as Spoke, allow one to send a message to an unconnected member only via a chain of connected members. In other words, if I want to reach Kevin Bacon, I must submit my message or request via someone I already know, and ask them to forward on the request to someone they know that knows Mr. Bacon. Each person in the chain has the option to forward — or not forward — the message on, encouraging the original writer to fine tune and prioritize his or her requests.

* * *

Out of the above ideas, I think the technology fix is the simplest, the collaborative filtering is a bit more complicated but still promising, the etiquette-teaching is a bit pie-in-the-sky (hey, people STILL send stupid chain letters despite being castigated), and the idea of stronger trust foundations being the most valuable overall.

Specifically, I have the most faith in the latter option because it maximizes the incentive to build thoughtful connections and make intelligent networking requests. When combined with a more subtlely gradated connection scheme (social friend, work friend, acquaintance, relative…), I truly believe that SNs will then be able to facilitate and encourage friendly exchanges amongst strata. Job seekers who engagingly contribute in the SNs forums or prove in other ways that they have something to offer will then be granted access to key decisionmakers and powerbrokers.

Of course, I acknowledge that the idea of discrete SNs-related strata is a bit of a fallacy. I may be an expert at one thing but a dunce at something else, and thus a great candidate for networking with someone of the opposite makeup for mutual benefit. Each of us may be, in that example, a ‘PowerPlayer’ in a different and complementary context. So, too, are there different fields of strata… physical attractiveness, artistic talents, social popularity, and yes, career achievement. The aforementioned CEO, for instance, is likely not averse to hearing from the unemployed, just uninterested in hearing from people who are, well, uninteresting and selfish.

* * *

Therefore, I’m optimistic that a mix of technological solutions built upon a flexible but not-overly-permissive gatekeeping/trusted-networking foundation will help SNs thrive — with people of all backgrounds on board. I just hope that relevant aspects of such a foundation become a stronger part of many of the current promising SNs in the news today.

* * *

Related entries:
Fascinating Perceptions of Online Social Networks
The New (much) Improved Friendster
A “Friend”ly misunderstanding
The concept of ‘networking’ events






One response to “Tragedy of the Social Networking Commons — and the fixes”

  1. john Avatar

    I posted this in the thread on orkut, too:

    I think everyone is beginning to agree that some sort of relationship classification scheme is necessary for a service like this, for many reasons.

    As far as etiquette goes, every one has different ideas about what is or is not appropriate behavior, why force everyone to comform to the same model?

    At the same time, no one wants to spend hours developing their own elaborate permissions schema.

    Perhaps etiquette ‘templates’ could be coded into the system, and everyone can choose how they’d like to filter their personal information. 

    One person could choose a template based on Confucious’s elaborate codes of conduct, another based on Victorian mores, and another person picks something based more on the open hippy/raver model?

What do you think?

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