Social Networking Apps – Bringing Benefits or Waste of Time?

Social networking applications are hardly a new phenomenon but there is no denying their recent surge in popularity. I’d tried a few infrequently here and there – such as sixdegrees.com and schoolfriends.com.au – but beyond the initial "something to do" in a moment of procrastination, not much to them.

I was a reluctant sign up to LinkedIn about 3 years ago – not really seeing the point, not looking for work at the time, and not interested in any more spam in a day. But they did execute it very well – a minimum in nuisance mails, and very easy to grow your network. It was intriguing to realise how closely connected people were in the local area, and even more so as I started to traverse open source contacts. It definitely had some appeal to the techie.

Fast forward to today, and over the last 5 months or so I’ve found myself being quite willing to sign up to yet-another-social-network.

Facebook is still the most recent I’ve used, and obviously a lot has been said about it in that time. It initially has all those same benefits – really easy to grow your network, full of information about people, but no real nuisance value (or at least easily ignored). By bringing in the application platform that has seen it have constant growth, they have also brought it that techie appeal.

I’ll admit to sinking a bit of time into it playing around with various different applications – adding everything I got invited to and letting the profile grow out of control at times. But I’ve found it less compelling to log in regularly and see what my network is up to over time. Now don’t get me wrong – I love playing pretend Jedi as much as the next guy – but are these sites bringing some value past the original "cool" factor, or just becoming a massive time sink?

I thought I’d take a look at the sites I actively use and compare:

  • Facebook: Obviously the big one, and my original intent for this was to aggregate all the other social networks I was on through the use of the applications. It hasn’t really fulfilled that promise, but on the other hand I’ve quickly built the biggest network here – not only my immediate contacts but getting back in touch with friends from a number of years ago.

    Sheer size is the benefit here – it’s great to hear from people you don’t regularly, and to get to know more about people you do. I’ve had people ask if they can borrow a book they never knew I had before, and other such similar instances where it’s had some actual practical benefit. And in appropriate doses, it is fun to play around with the applications.

  • LinkedIn: I’ve never used LinkedIn to go searching for work, and have only once or twice received an invitation or request to pass an invitation on. I can see how it might be of benefit to such users – but it’s never really applied to me. I’ve found the greatest practical benefit being that I hear where my former colleagues or acquaintances are moving to when they change jobs.

    It’s a good place to keep up a separate professional network though, and all the original benefits are still there, though I’ve not seen a killer new feature in some time that has drawn me back into the site either.

  • Dopplr: I was a little skeptical about Dopplr at first – but as I’ve started travelling more it is becoming interesting to see who is going to the same places. I think this requires more non-conference travel and a bigger network to see the benefits, but it could be interesting – and I’ve seen at least one instance of a person catching up halfway across the planet through dopplr. Certainly worth keeping up with.

  • Twitter: I’ve written about twitter before – and this has turned out to be a real surprise to me. It is surely tedious in a lot of instances – but I’ve found it the most useful of all. One use is as a group SMS tool – when you need to meet up with people it’s easier to hit them all at once – and I’ve used it this way a few times. When I’m away from the computer, it has the good and the bad (it’s hard to switch off) of keeping you close to what your network is up to. When you work in a distributed office, it’s always nice to make the world a smaller place.

    I did think this would get old very quickly – and it goes through ups and downs – but I  find you can get through a lot of content with a low commitment, and you get a lot of information (whether of practical value or just for fun) that you’d otherwise miss.

Along the way, sites like flickr and del.icio.us – if not intrinsically built for social networking – have utilised some of these aspects and general social interaction to build something more compelling. As useful as del.icio.us is – I’ve never really used other peoples tags as much as it has been a bookmark repository. flickr has been great for sharing photos with friends, following comments and so on – though I now find myself wanting flickr’s photo and tagging capabilities along with facebook’s social tagging of photos.

This seems to be the sweet spot – increasing available metadata for your content, and making it relevant to your social network. There is a new use for this every day, and something that will be interesting to follow.

Would I need any more social networks or apps? There are obviously a massive number I’m not using already, and the above are just the regular ones, but there are still opportunities  to do new things out there, particularly to reapply the concepts of a social network to existing static research problems.

It seems many new ideas will turn to using the facebook platform to leverage the existing network. Even Dopplr could likely be delivered solely as a facebook application now – however there is also something refreshing about having something that is not constrained by it either.

But it seems the things that make a good site are clear:

  • easy to build a network and giving the opportunity to interact simply with others
  • control over the amount of noise you receive
  • provide regular, useful information – sending useful notifications at timely intervals
  • practical functionality beyond the coolness factory
  • combining metadata and content with collaboration

Now, time to go back to biting chumps.

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