I learned a lot at Supernova as I do every year. It is difficult to explain the depth and breadth of what transpired at the conference, but hopefully I will hit some highlights and provide links where you can learn more. One of the many interesting topics was “networks” — something that we take for granted. Three experts talked about the diversity of very large types of networks including baggage routing networks of an airline, electrical grid networks, natural gas distribution, the global aviation system, the Internet, and of course our social networks. The big picture is that social networks are evolving to the point that the entire World Wide Web is likely going to become the Social Web.
A social network is a structure consisting of nodes (people or organizations) that have a common interest or increasingly a dependency. The tie that binds us can be one or more of many things: values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, kinship, food likes or dislikes, buy or sell trading, links to each other’s blogs, epidemiology, or airline routes. The resulting ontologies are very complex. Research in a number of academic fields has shown that social networks operate on many levels, from families to countries. The use of the networks is beginning to be a key tool in collaboration to solve problems, how people achieve their goals and even how organizations are run.
In its simplest form, a social network is a map of all the relevant ties between the nodes (people). One of the first social networks was Linkedin and I have been a member of it from nearly the beginning. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get several invitations to become a “friend” or “colleague” with another Linkedin member (or Plaxo Pulse or Facebook). To gain the real “network effect” I recommend being selective in dealing with these invitations. Otherwise you end up connected to everybody which is as valuable as being connected to nobody. There are many people who are looking for people to send press releases to or to throw you into a recruitment pool or just be able to say they “know” someone or is their “friend” because they saw your name in the paper or saw you at a conference. The real power is not in the numbers per se but to really know someone who knows someone who knows someone and to have the credibility with the person you know such that they are willing to help you to connect to someone else. I have 178 trusted friends and colleagues in my Linkedin network. Two degrees away — friends of friends; each connected to one of my connections — there are more than 60,000 people. Three degrees away — members who can be reached through a friend and one of their friends — is 3,200,000 people. If you are discerning about it you can develop considerable social capital.
There are many issues in the social networking space. One of them is that there are so many networks. If you take a look at the bottom of this post you will see a Share This icon and if you like the story and click on the green icon, a dialogue box offers you three functions. You can send an email link to the story to friends. A second choice is that you can post the story to your own blog. Perhaps most important is the third choice which is to post the story at one or more of your favorite social networks. The dialogue box displays icons for the various social networks — Facebook and thirty-nine other of the top forty networks! A few mouse clicks and you have the ultimate chain letter. I think ShareThis has great potential.
How many social networks should you belong to? Certainly not forty. I belong to Linkedin, Plaxo Pulse, Facebook, and MySpace. Four is enough for me. But is it? There are many niche networks — such as A Small World — that will be of interest to m any. But do you want to create a profile of your personal information at each of the networks you choose? And keep them up to date? And tell your connected friends what you are doing and exactly where you are (latitude and longitude) and what music you like or even what song you are listening to at the moment? To me the glass is half full. I am hopeful that protocols will emerge such as OAuth, OpenID, and OpenSocial that will level the playing field. We will be able to use one single “sign-on” for all our web sites and create *one* profile and have control over which networks and which parts of the profile it appear in. For example, it would be nice to create a comprehensive profile that is encrypted and totally under the user’s control. You may choose to have your favorite songs be accessible through Facebook but not your medical records from Google Health and your Google Health electronic medical record to be accessible to your primary care physician and your hospital but nobody else. The application you create for your consulting business or a new game you created could be available through *all* the social networks.
Social networking is the next turn of the crank of the Internet. By combining networks, such as a mobile phone networks, mobile payment systems, the Internet and a network of people all sharing a common cause, a viral effect can take place resulting in a lot of money or assistance flowing to the need — political, emergency response or (hopefully) humanitarian.
Security and privacy issues with social networking? Another story to come soon.