Monday, October 23, 2006

Social Networking may not be All That

The theory behind social networking, often positioned as a key element of Web 2.0, seems simple and powerful: instead of buying into "marketing hype" about a product or service, or the canned references of an individual, one can get honest opinions from independent, unbiased sources about the quality and reliability of a company, product, service, or person. Put another way, you might not select a plumbing contractor because he has a big ad in the yellow pages, but if Aunt Mabel recommends him, then he must be okay. Social networking is a way to get the opinions of a lot of Aunt Mabels at once.

But what if it doesn't turn out that way? What if the most -recommended contractors on Angie's List turn out to be the ones that already have the biggest Yellow Pages ads? What if the most highly-rated products on epinions are the ones already backed by huge national advertising budgets? What if the most commonly tagged blogs on are the ones written by "household name" bloggers? In short, what if social networking doesn't so much replace "marketing hype" and vacuous celebrity as reflect it?

Three strands of thought led to these questions:

- I brought up social networking in a conversation recently with a friend of mine, a high-powered executive recruiter. Her comment" "We don't use LinkedIn. It's for losers and wannabes." Ouch!

Now, I know plenty of folks -- and you probably do too -- who do use LinkedIn and are anything but "losers and wannabes." But if this perception were to become widespread, it could obviously drive people to avoid the service.

- There are several business segments where social networking simply doesn't apply: doctors, lawyers, investment bankers... When multinational firms are planning mergers or acqusitions, are they really going to use Ecademy to find their financial partners? If a CEO is pleased with the legal advice his company received from the law firm of Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe, is he likely to document that experience online?

- Many business executives distrust the entire concept, because "anyone can say anything on the web." It's common, for example, on stock discussion boards for short-sellers to pose as insiders with damaging information about a company to trash a stock's prospects in order to drive down the price. Fortunately, this seldom works -- institutional and other large investors rarely pay attention to these boards, and those who do are sophisticated enough to spot a short-seller miles away.

More broadly, however, it's easy for competitors or disgruntled former employees to pose as unhappy customers and attempt to cause mischief.

There are also security problems, business model problems ("Visiting most social networking sites is akin to getting invited to a party where all the cool kids are going, then showing up and finding out there's no food, no drinks, no band, no games, no pool, nothing. Just a bunch of painful small talk and leering grins."), and other problems.

Perhaps this skepticism is overblown; maybe the benefits really do outweigh the potential downside. The ultimate success or failure of social networking will depend upon perceptions. Social networking will clearly be a winner once that executive recruiter joins LinkedIn.


Terms: Web 2.0, social networking, LinkedIn,, Angie's List,, Ecademy

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