There was a comment in Paul Kedrosky’s blog last month asking about the real value of social networks:
Facebook, MySpace, I don’t get it: personalize a webpage template and exchange links, I mean friendships, with people.
Since I responded to the comment, I thought it was worth expanding on and posting here. Here are some of the key reasons I believe people have taken to services like Facebook.
People like to talk about themselves. (Including me.) The explosion in blogs is just one example. But blogging is a lot of work. You have to pick a blog platform, pick a name for the blog and write posts. Each post is a fair amount of work to assemble. (I spend 20-45 minutes on a post, depending on how much research is involved.)
At AOL, I talked frequently about microblogging — allowing people to quickly and easily express their thoughts without all the overhead of blogging. Lowering the bar increases participation.
That’s exactly what social networking sites do. I can go into the Flixster Movies app on Facebook, search for a movie, click a star rating and write out a one-paragraph review. The actors, title, summary and movie picture are pre-populated. By contrast, every time I come to WordPress I face a blank screen. It’s like the difference between a fill-in-the blank test and an essay question.
People want to feel connected, but they don’t want to do a lot of work to be connected. Social networks allow us to keep in touch with many more people than we could ordinarily keep track of. I have many former colleagues, college friends and other acquaintances who I want to stay in touch with. I want to know what’s going on in their lives, but I don’t have time to call and email everyone. One of my favorite applications is the slickr screensaver; it taps into flickr and lets me see the latest in my friends lives when my computer is idle.
These networks also help me discover common interests with people I know. When I visited Carl Kasell’s profile on Facebook, I found that six of my friends are also Carl fans.
There’s also the value of persistence: with changing email addresses, phone numbers, jobs, it’s not always easy to find someone. On LinkedIn and Facebook, I’m connected to the person, not the specific contact address.
Email today is a disaster. With all the spams, scams and other nasties, the closed environment on Facebook is a godsend. I know when I get a message on Facebook that it’s most likely not spam. There’s no chance that the message will get trapped by an overly aggressive spam filter (I get way too many false positives) — you’re more likely to reach me through a comment on my blog or a Facebook message than by email.
Discussions elsewhere have gotten out of hand. Pretty much any blog post or discussion that gets more than a few commenters on most sites devolves into personal attacks. When conversations involve real identity the discussion is usually (though certainly not always) more civil.
As the song goes, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.