Thanks to the recent mushrooming of social networking systems, I am starting to experience a new problem that I call "social overload." Now that I am connected to the world via LinkedIn, Ryze, Plaxo, Orkut, and Typepad, as well 6 different IM systems, and several email accounts, I am finding that an increasing amount of my time is spent on "relationship maintenance" tasks like approving or declining relationship and referral requests.
The fact that I am experiencing social overload is ironic because the intent of many of these systems is actually to increase the efficiency of my relationships, thereby improving my productivity. However I find that exactly the reverse is what is taking place in practice.
For example, on LinkedIn I now receive quite a few referral requests every week from people I don't know, targeted ultimately to people I don't know. I now have to respond to this new class of requests that I would never have received prior to my joining LinkedIn. It's great to help strangers, but ultimately what is the direct benefit to me? I find that in fact I almost never make requests via LinkedIn -- in fact, I think in general the people are getting most of the requests are probably the ones who in turn are issuing the least requests themselves. So in fact, these services may be amplifying the noise that that set of users has to deal with rather than filtering it.
The premise of many social networking systems is that they inject added trust to interactions -- the concept being that a message that comes to me via someone I know is somehow more worth my time and more reliable. But in fact, in practice I find that I have not once denied someone's request to forward a message on their behalf in LinkedIn for example. Why should I deny someone whom I don't know the right to contact someone else whom I don't know? Since I really don't know the originator or recipient of the message, how am I able to judge the appropriateness and relevance of that message? Therefore I just always say "yes" and forward the message along. I think many other people do this as well. There is an unwritten social code that it is simply "rude" to not forward a message. Because of this, social networking services actually result in the opposite of what they set out to do -- they increase the number of irrelevant messages that their participants receive.
Another case in point is Plaxo, a service that has successfully used social overload to its advantage. Plaxo results in so many irrelevant and annoying messages that eventually users give up and join the system -- the benefit of that being that they no longer get all those annoying messages. It's the social network equivalent of a protection scheme. Of course Plaxo is useful in theory once you join -- it's nice to have updated addressbooks, but in fact, it wasn't the updated addressbook concept that got me to join Plaxo, it was simply the aggravation of all those Plaxo messages. In fact since signing up I have never used Plaxo or visited the site and I can't even tell you exactly what it does for me! It's integrated into my Outlook and there's a cool looking button there now, but I really haven't used it for anything.
Ryze is a service that is fun, but so far I have not extracted any real value, other than publicity, from it. Orkut seems to be similar -- a fun curiosity lacking true long-term value or usefulness. Furthermore all these services are designed in a manner that virtually guarantees they will become less useful the more successful they get. To put it simply, as social networks grow they become overwhelming. We could phrase this as a "law" of sorts, such as, "the utility of a social network is inversely proportional to the number of people it contains" and a corollary might be, "the utility of a social network is inversely proportional to the average number of relationships per member of the network."
The value of LinkedIn, Orkut, Friendster and other such services is currently speculative -- many people join these services because they are curious, others join to "see and be seen" in their industries or communities, others join because they were invited but never use the services for anything. But are social networking services really useful in the long-term? Or are they just passing fads? Perhaps these services are good for dating or classifieds, as in the case of Tribe.net, but I think the average online personals site, or Craig’s List, are far more useful than any social networking service so far for those purposes. Another value proposition that services like LinkedIn offer is the ability to prospect your network -- but who has time to browse through 20,000 contact records? And when I need to find someone somewhere, it seems a lot easier to simply go to the home page of the organization I am trying to reach and just get their phone number or email one of their people. Prospecting through my social network enables me to engage in "random discovery" but that is usually the least efficient way to network. In fact, when I want to network I usually have a good idea of who I want to reach and I know how to reach them more directly.
Are people whom I don't know really more likely to read my message because it came via LinkedIn rather than regular e-mail? I don't think so, although this could certainly be tested empirically. But even if for the moment services like LinkedIn get me more attention that may be a temporary benefit that will fade as the popularity of such services grows. If "social overload" continues to self-amplify the way it has been doing I predict that most people will start tuning out messages they get from social networking services in favor of another, more exclusive channel. What will that new channel be? We don't know yet -- but we do know that whenever a communications channel becomes saturated it creates a demand for a new channel that has a better signal-to-noise ratio. In the meantime we can add "social overload" to the existing problems of "information overload" and "spam." It's the next problem we all have to solve. Ironically, it is a problem created by its own solution.
I would also like to suggest that there is no need for many different social networking systems, just as there is no need for 6 different IM systems. One would be sufficient. In fact, one would be ideal! I now participate in several different social networks, all containing many of the same people -- what is the benefit of that? It used to be that there were many different and incompatible e-mail systems -- now there is really just a single global e-mail infrastructure that all e-mail platforms connect to. I think we will see a similar evolution with social networks. In a conversation with Jerry Michalski yesterday we realized that we would like to see something like Jabber emerge in the realm of social networks -- an open platform for social networking applications that could provide a unified standard and a means of integrating -- instead of all these different and incompatible networks.
Those of us who were around when the original Six Degrees launched in the '90s may remember seeing all this play out once before -- Six Degrees followed the same trajectory: It started with viral growth, then went exponential, then reached saturation and became inefficient and annoying, and finally people realize they really didn't have a clear use or need for the service. Today the market may be more educated and the technologies have certainly evolved -- but have the business models fundamentally evolved as well? And do the new crop of social networking services fundamentally improve on what Six Degrees originally did (which ultimately failed for lack of true utility)?
I believe that the concept of social networking has merit and that social networking tools have the potential to be useful, but until we see added semantics, better filtering (both a technical and social problem), and the emergence of a social networking standard that enables integration across different social networking platforms, I think these services will probably lead more to "social overload" than to "social benefits." They appear to be on the verge of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution.