I love this video from Lee Lefever that explains social networking, because I could show it to my dad and he'd understand it.
That said, it got me thinking about the limits of social networking.
As the video points out, the connections between people are valuable, and social networking is a way to make them more visible and usable. That's great. But it's obvious that all those social connections aren't equally valuable, and its worth considering what the source of their value is and what that means in the context of social networking.
Some of the value of a particular network connection comes from the skills, knowledge, and reputation of the individuals; let's call that the independent value that anybody brings to any social network connection. But there's also situational value that's we don't bring to any network connection; it depends on who is on the other end of that connection.
If my work life fell apart tomorrow, there are about four or five people I'd call and tell about it in brutal honesty; in return I'd get real help from them. There's a larger group that I'd contact and give part of the story to, perhaps not letting on how dire things were, and I'd get some help from them too. There are a lot of people who I'd approach in a more casual way.
Because, you see, the relationships are different. One of those top-level connections would go out of her way to introduce to me to people, putting her own credibility on the line. Those who are a few levels down in depth of relationship will make some efforts, but won't put themselves at too much risk. And so on.
And so there are two important points to keep in mind about social networking:
First, as Lee points out in the video, online networking makes hidden connections visible and usable but it doesn't increase their value. Digging up hidden value is different than creating value, and if you want to create a valuable network, all the effort that this required before the web is still required.
Second, there is a danger to social networking; with all those connections visible, it's tempting to assume value and shirk on the effort required to keep a network healthy. If somebody is one of your LinkedIn contacts but you haven't exchanged an email for two years, it's a crap connection. It means nothing; you probably can't depend on it. Yes, that person might be thrilled to hear from you, but you haven't been nurturing the connection, and there's an excellent chance it's atrophied.
Visibility and value aren't the same. If you want to make use of the power of social networking that Lee describes, you need to take care of that network. Go have a look at your LinkedIn page and ask yourself, without looking for the details, "Where does she work now? Did he get married? What's her latest project?" If you have no idea, you've got some work to do. It's nice to look at a long list, but like having four hundred "friends" on MySpace, it won't keep you company on a lonely Friday night.
It's the classic Web 2.0 problem; we've created great connections and conduits, but what are they filled with? Unlike many Web 2.0 idea, social networking is one where you can expend effort and see an immediate affect.
This is my networking resolution: over the coming weeks I'm contacting everyone in my LinkedIn network to catch up. If I can't track them down, off the list they go, because a sentimental memory of working together is not a connection. And the day I really need that network, I want to know it counts for something.