Blast from the past – social software in 2004

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In July 2004 I wrote a piece called Confessions of a social software addict. In the current wave of interest about social networking (or social software as we called it then) I thought it might be instructive to see that the same issues – like having to register on several sites to be part of all the networks – have not gone away, even as they get worse today. I am posting it here because today SoFlow.com says it is closing. RIP guys.

The so-called Social Software world grew even more crowded this week, with the launch of SoFlow.com. I have decided to go into therapy for hyper-connectedness. Here’s my confession.

I’m a 35 year old man and I am a social software addict. Well, I must be.

For research purposes (famous last words, I know) I’ve registered on just about every online networking web there is. The latest to appear this week was SoFlow.com, the Friends-Reunited-meets-Friendster-meets-LinkedIn site.

Its backed by former Clickz.com founder Andy Bourland, and headed-up by dotcom veteran of these parts Robert Loch.

SoFlow wants to “create the most effective networking service in the world.”

I wish them well. But they are going to have to join the queue.

I, along with all the other addicts, am already registered on LinkedIn.com, Friendster.com, Everyonesconnected.com, Ecademy.com, Tribe.net, Ryze.com, Plink.com and the Google-backed Orkut.com.

Hyper-connectedness is a diverting pastime. But, like most addictions, it’s getting a little tiresome.

Online networking / dating / Friends-Reunited-nostalgia-hunting, whatever you want to call it, is clearly of huge fascination to people.

Why? Because people are interested in people. It’s in our DNA.

The Web has managed to revolutionise a number of areas since it’s invention, and to some at least, online networking looks set to be the next big thing.

Yesterday, the tech news site Netimperative ran a sector seminar on e-tail at which delegates heard how e-tailing is changing retailing on the high street.

A similar paradigm shift is happening with online networking versus real-world networking.

What it has started to do is interesting enough. We’ve all read the stories in the newspapers about the divorces resulting from Friends Reunited members getting re-acquainted.

The Social Software area remains an academic debate, and many a blogger’s favourite topic. And there are high hopes for its role in re-connecting communities, atomised by the modern destruction of the nuclear family and a mobile population.

But from a business perspective, social software sometimes seems more like a solution in search of a problem.

The business models of some of the latest social software start-ups remain a curiosity.

LinkedIn.com will (eventually) be a subscription service allowing users to input and manage their contacts and to search for connections. Right now it is quite grey and business-like. To some this has been an advantage, along with its relatively closed system of networking. But the jury is still out on how big a business this is.

Spoke.com is a deeply integrated enterprise solution which extracts contact data from enterprise applications (such as Outlook) to establish what connections you do have. There are more, like VisiblePath, Contact Network and SocialText, digitally mapping the relationships inside and outside corporations. These tools try to leverage connections, often through email traffic.

There are the beginnings of a useful sales contact tool here. Possibly. Though most sales people already know who their best contacts are.

ZeroDegrees is an Outlook plug-in and related service which inputs, manages, prioritises and searches your connections on email. If you like that sort of thing.

Then there are the online SocSoft businesses which vary from dating services to friends of friends sites, like Ryze.com, perhaps the original networker’s paradise.

There’s an online social network to suit anyone and everyone’s taste.

But register on them and what happens. Usually very little. You invite your friends and contacts. You email friends using the system, with messages you would have sent on normal email anyway. You get testimonials from people you know you’d get testimonials from. Everyone slaps each other on the back and then what?

A few month later your registered profile is out of date, you’ve made a bunch of contacts who aren’t on the system anyway and you’re now being spammed by multi-level marketers who’ve found your profile and want to sell you something you don’t need or want.

Outside of re-connecting with the odd contact you’d lost touch with, it all feels a little incestuous.

Worst of all, you get approached for connections by link-whores, trying to impress others with the size of their network.

Last week I had to contact LinkedIn.com direct because their system didn’t allow me to break my connection with a prominent networking guru. This individual has over 2,000 connections in their personal network, a staggering number of contacts, which implies that a network so indiscriminate is actually pretty useless.

But after deleting him from my network, the emails started again in earnest: “Hi. I noticed that you are also using LinkedIn. I’d be happy to recommend you to the people I know. If you feel the same, please accept my invitation to connect networks. I’ll only pass requests on to you from people I trust, and I hope you’ll do the same for me.”

Can this guy not take a hint?

His sheer connectedness suggests that the people who have chosen not to connect with him, are far more discriminating than those who have. (And that’s how you insult 2,000 people in one stroke, BTW. OK, make that 2,001).

There are probably a few more, but I can think of two main avenues for business-oriented social software from here on.

The first is recruitment advertising. Knight-ridder, the US-based newspaper network has already made a strategic investment in Tribe.net. This was a canny move. They have realised that some day classified recruitment ads will start disappearing into SocSoft applications. They already are in an informal sense, with subscription services effectively replacing the classified model.

RealContacts.com, for instance, is a New Zealand-based company focused purely on allowing people to pass around information about jobs through friends of friends. It’s model could have implications for recruitment advertising publishers such as newspapers and magazines.

Have you noticed the number of recruitment firm personnel registering on these services? I rest my case.

My networking guru’s example suggests a second path.

It’s wonderful to be able to see who the contacts are of my contacts. Oh, to surf other people’s address books. Privacy? What’s that?

But surely the really valuable people either won’t go onto these systems, or will lock down their profile so hard, they’ll be practically invisible.

History tells us that the most powerful networking communities have always been closed, not open. Have you ever seen the Mason’s throw open-house drinks parties?

However, as I said. I’m an addict. So I will be registering on SoFlow.com.

See you in The Priory.

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