I’m going to start off my new blog (this one) by posting on the topic of social networking. I know, everyone seems to be writing on this topic given that we are in Web 2.0, but what the heck.

My question is this: When will Social Networks be truly helpful?

I came across a fascinating post tonight by Dave Pollard titled “Social Networking: Still not Meeting its Critical Purpose” that I would like to elaborate on.  More specifically, Dave mentions that there are 4 main functions that a social network should fulfill in the future:

  1. Finding people to love and live with
  2. Finding people to make a living with
  3. Finding people who share important or urgent affinities (and then enabling them to organize, activate, and exchange context-rich information peer-to-peer with those people, such as health counsel and ‘epinions’)
  4. Enabling powerful virtual collaboration when face-to-face is, for economic or logistic reasons, impossible

These are very hard functions for a social network to handle, especially given that most social networks are built for entertainment purposes only. TIME Magazine released its list of the 50 Coolest Web Sites yesterday and Myspace was listed in the Staying Connected category whereas I would have put them in the Time Wasters category (but I can see the argument both ways). In this day and age, everyone seems to be scrambling to get into social networking, from the likes of Wal-Mart to tiny start-ups such as Golfbuzz. There are obviously way too many players in the market and many are doomed to fail in my humble opinion. A social network needs loyal users and users aren’t loyal to numerous sites (in most cases).

Back to Dave’s 4 points– the social networks that win out are going to be the ones that find a way to be both interesting/fun AND helpful. LinkedIn has value to business professionals, hence its popularity. What does Myspace help you do? Sure, you can find anyone and everyone on the site, but they provide no way to even sort through your existing connections based on thier connection to you. Here are my thoughts on the 4 useful things a social network could provide:

  1. Finding people to love and live with- This is going to be a tough nut to crack, but I think it can be done. It’s all about connecting people with similar interests and personalities. With enough user-generated data, matching of any sort become possible. Myspace and Facebook seem to have the best shot at this since so many people have already spent so much time on the sites, earning them trust with their users.
  2. Finding people to make a living with- LinkedIn could easily branch into this given that they cater to business professionals. Or maybe Meetup, though their User Experience is lacking in my opinion. In the end, it still comes back to connecting people with similar personalities and passions.
  3. Finding people who share important or urgent affinities (and then enabling them to organize, activate, and exchange context-rich information peer-to-peer with those people, such as health counsel and ‘epinions’)- this is the whole premise of what social networks should provide to users. Small, niche sites are the ones that will win in this area in my opinion. Myspace is too broad (anyone and everyone) to really connect people. It seems the most vibrant conversations on the web are ocurring in online communities (usually forums) that cater to specific audiences. Example- AgentsOnline for real estate agents.
  4. Enabling powerful virtual collaboration when face-to-face is, for economic or logistic reasons, impossible- the most complex problem, but Wikipedia is a great example of this.

I’m sure I will touch more on this subject in the near future if you are interested.