ready-fire-aim in social network services

with more social networking tools than you can shake a mouse at (see Judith Meskill’s list for proof), there are bound to be some real losers. so far, i’m not sure if there are any winners, but that remains to be seen…the night it still young.

one of the main problems here is the “build it and they will come” mentality (as opposed to finding out what people need first, then building somethinig to meet that need). danah boyd articulates the issue well.

in addition to her other arguments, she asks, what problem do we have that social network [tools] give us insight into? insight is important, and i think the failures of the current crop of applications do give us insight. among other things, they make it abundantly clear how difficult it is to model human relationships with things like ontologies or controlled vocabularies (Clay Shirky has made this point recently). this wouldn’t come as a surprise to many people.
in addition to insight, the question of value is central, in my opinion…if social networking tools solve a problem that’s meaningful to people, then they deliver value.

if one agrees that there is a horse-cart inversion going on here, there’s another question that follows: why are so many intelligent people building things with questionable (or unknown) value, flawed logic, or just plain silly assumptions?

money is the first and most obvious answer. a lot of the visible activity is probably just bandwagon jumping because social networking software is the coolest thing since internet incubators or selling pet food on the web.

another explanation is more satisfying to me…people have an intuitive feeling that social networking applications are new and exciting and can offer something valuable beyond just making friends or getting dates.

social network applications are exciting candidates for systems with emergent properties. the simplest way to discover these properties is to build first, watch things emerge, and then refine and rebuild once you have a better idea of how these things are really useful. granted, this may not be the best way to do things, but in the absence of other approaches, it’s the occam’s razor solution.

in essence, developers are building sociological laboratories on the net, turning people loose, and watching the results. this is implied in eric schmidt’s statement about google and social networking apps: "Social networks will get better as we figure out what problem they’re intended to solve."
ok, he probably means social networking tools, but even so…there is an assumption being made here that social networking tools are necessary, that they are intended to solve any problem.

time will tell. after all, human beings have been doing reasonably well without social software for thousands of years (modulo things like war, of course). so relationship software exposes the thousands of connections each of us shares with other people…it makes us see how we’re hyperconnected.

does it follow that social network software makes us better? or does it just make some things a little easier? is it evolution or revolution?

the next time someone starts frothing at the mouth about friendster or orkut or whatever, ask them that question…i’d be interested in their response.

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