Will social networks be like air?

According to Charlene Li, prominent social media analyst and founder of the Altimeter Group, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’. The idea, that has been floating for some time, is that rather than us making a conscious effort to visit Facebook, Twitter or other social networks, these will be so interwoven into the web experience that we’ll hardly realize we are using them (hence the parallel with air: we hardly notice we need the stuff to breathe).I recently had the opportunity to hear her expound further on this idea on an SES webcast hosted by Matt McGowen.

She proffered the compelling example of buying books on Amazon. It’s one thing seeing book recommendations from people with supposedly similar tastes and interests. But what about if you can bring your social network to the table – ie. those in your group who also buy books from Amazon. Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing what they’ve bought too? Given that we’re more inclined to take advice from those we trust, book recommendations from our friends are more powerful than those from a stranger. That leads to the benefits for site owners: more sales to be made by allowing us to see relevant information from our circle of friends (often referred to as the social graph). So runs the theory.

Social networks will be like air

Mirroring the mall

In the real world, this scenario plays out in malls and shopping centers across the globe every Saturday afternoon. For instance, gangs of school girls prowl malls and shops, bonding over rails of the latest skin-tight jeans and boob tubes, sharing fashion tips of the moment and goading each other to spend. This is often the beginning of a social shopping habit that can last well into the 40’s, if the Sex in the City ‘gang’ are anything to go by.

Whilst the social aspect to shopping has been around as long as we’ve had high streets, the online shopping experience has been largely a solitary affair. The somewhat bulky task of emailing a page to a friend is about as social as it gets. But all that could change if Charlene’s predictions play out and social networks are weaved into the general browsing experience. The web also allows us to go that much further. You can tap networks of friends from around the globe and even those you wouldn’t necessarily shop with (eg. work colleagues).

As Charlene points out, this is more than the future: this ‘social portability’ is already available through services such as Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect – both services that can embed social elements into any old web page. Launched over the last year, both services have been growing steadily.

I should point out that you can take your social graphics and apply it to whatever the application: it doesn’t just have to be shopping. For instance, if I’m attending an event, I could start networking and finding those with similar interests before I arrive. When it comes to commenting on blogs, we’re already beginning to see tie-ups with Twitter, so my followers can instantly check out my opinions on other blog posts.

How social do we want to be?

Will these connection services become more prevalent in the future? I think so. Will this be the dominant/pervasive model? Here’s where I have some reservation. There are times where, to paraphrase Greta Garbos, we just want to be alone. Some of our shopping is by necessity furtive: like buying a surprise gift, or pandering to those desires that fall outside the social norm.

There’s also the question of the notion that ‘social’ intrinsically means ‘good’. At the extreme think Lord of the Flies and Stalin. The alphas in any group can cajole and bully us into accepting their tastes (and in some instances berate us to the extent that we don’t make a purchase we would have made if alone). The privacy of online shopping can be a healthy respite from this.

Just exactly how neat is our social graph?

We have many sides to our personality and have friends for different reasons. In reality we share different parts of ourselves with friends, work colleagues and family, to name just some groupings. This leaves many of us with more than one social graph. What’s more, many of these graphs bleed into each other. Think of the work colleague you get close to and consider a friend. Existing social networks like Facebook are still grappling with how to factor this in and allow us to manage our social graphs in a more useful way. Going back to the Amazon example, are we really interested in seeing the book-buying habits of all our so-called friends?

Conclusion: social networks with limited connectivity

So whilst there are a number of advantages to tying our social graph into our web browsing experience, there are instances where the model isn’t appropriate or may not offer relevant information. There comes a point where our social graph fragments and can’t be neatly modeled. Furthermore, there is something compelling in the solitary aspect to the web.

In closing I’ll offer an anecdote around listening to music online. Recently, two music-loving friends who had previously been fans of Last.fm said they had switched to Spotify.  Both offered the same reason: you don’t need to show the world what you’re listening to. In a race to be social, are we forgetting one major appeal of the web: the joy of being anonymous?

More information

Charlene Li webcast on ‘how to integrate social media into your business strategy‘ (including a discussion on how social networks of the future will be like air).

3 thoughts on “Will social networks be like air?”

  1. You’ve struck a chord with me here… I think you’re totally right about this. Social media will be like air, we will stop noticing it, I can’t help thinking there are positives and negatives with this outcome. All of which you’ve outlined perfectly here.

  2. Very interesting and insightful post. I sometimes turn off my cell phone because I don’t want to be bothered and agree that anonymity on occasion is important for most people–including on the web. On the other side, the dramatic growth in social networks shows just how powerful the human need is to socialize with like minded people. I suspect that portability might need to account for the phenomenon that you mention–that is, you may want different social graphs to accompany you to different web sites, or for perspective on various products and services. I trust some friends for car reco’s, but not others, etc. Regardless, it will be a fascinating ride and will challenge the way marketing has operated for the past 50+ years. My take on this is at: http://randallbeard.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/social-web-transforms-marketing/
    Randall Beard

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