Robert Scoble recently chaired a discussion on the new digital divide: those that have friends and those that don’t. Facebook, MySpac,e and now Twitter & even GoogleReader – they all revolve around having lots of friends, but for those of us no longer in tightly packed college networks, its sometimes difficult to make new friends. We take friends for granted, but all this social networking-innovation requires a critical mass of connections, and sites don’t do enough to make “onramping” easy enough for non-early-adopter-users. Of course, we could just ignore them. That’s what I like to do. 🙂 But I’m told that growth rates will level off unless they can tap into this broader segment who is hearing about social networking but finding it initially very difficult to use, losing patience, and giving up. The idea is that if we make it easier, we remove this ceiling on the size of the social networking market, and we make the pie bigger for everyone.
I decided to take a look at his blog, and sure enough there is a post from last week where he addresses the question of “Where has Scoble Gone?” explaining that he spends less and less time posting proper blog entries because he spends more and more time having conversations via Twitter & FriendFreed. He is literally monitoring and interacting with thousands of people in an ongoing conversation in a much more real-time and quasi-one-to-one way than a one-way interaction that publishing a blog often becomes.
I was reading the comments to Scoble’s post, and one comment struck me as interesting – some psychology research that had been done suggesting that the idea network for a person is around 150 people. The commenter argued that beyond 150, the quality of the network went down. Essentially, this suggests that while Scoble’s attempt to interact in with thousands of people via Twitter & FriendFeed might be useful because he can monitor the zeitgeist of the interwebs and also keep a pulse on current trends, we are limited by our own psychology and physiology to never be able to have meaningful relationships with more than 150.
I started thinking that perhaps these new social networking tools might actually increase that number. I read the details of a similar study – about the number of poeple one could really keep in ones immediate network – in Tipping Point. In describing the classic connector, Gladwell suggested that in order to “understand” a group, one needs to understand one’s relationship to every person in the group, and the relationship between each person and everyone else. Thus, a group of 3 has 2+1=3 relationships to keep track of. A group of 5 has 4+3+2+1 = 10 relationships to keep track of. And so on. Essentially, our brains have to be able to understand every single relationship and also keep up-to-date with changes in every single relationships, thus we tend to max out around 94. 94, interestingly, was the size of one phalanx in the Roman army.
In any case, perhaps our social networking utilities can supercharge our productivity, amplify our time, and enable us to boost the number at which we max out. After all, Facebook, at its core, is a way for me to passively keep in touch with friends. Reaching out requires effort. And knowing their current status means reaching out frequently. But Facebook enables me not only to reach out to you instantly, but also to see who else you’re interacting with, and although I could expend the effort to reach out to you and find all this out whenever I wanted, Facebook Newsfeeds add the very powerful utility of publishing news about you, or your interactions with other people, directly to my newsfeed. FriendFeed is the same in that it takes activity from all across the internets and collects it on one activity-stream. Ultimately these tools enable us to passively keep tabs on one another.
I continued reading, and started seeing references to “the new digital divide.” Turns out this is a concept that during the Web 1.0 era the experiene of any person using the internet on any computer was essentially the same. But now, thanks to Web 2.0 and the types of services that have sprung up, now if a new user logs onto Facebook their experience with 2 friends is vastly different from the experience of someone with 200 friends. With only 2 friends you have very little “input.” Scoble suggests that those who build web services should work to smooth this “onramping” experience for, by example, connecting a software developer who signs up on Facebook with other software developers or tech blogs, so that he might immediately have some input in his social network. I think this is actually very insightful, because what Scoble is saying is that more and more we’re going to bump-up against a wall where learning how to interact and quickly discovering and recognizing the utility of social networks is a big challenge. Those who don’t see the value immediately will be aliented. From the point of view of the software industry, we want to make this a welcoming environment to grow the community, rather than ignoring the vast majority of consumers who don’t “get it.”
It’s all very interesting. I almost want to write a paper on it. Suppose I just did.
Saw this today on Facebook. Apparently they’re working hard to improve the” onramping experience” of new users. This is a smart idea. First level of intelligence is that Facebook looks at the Jenny’s first few friends and suggests others to her. Then it evolves. It starts suggesting Jenny as a potential new friend to anyone who knows the people Jenny has already added. Finally, it evolves even further. Now Facebook wants me to point out people in my network that Jenny may now. What could be more comforting than a new friend to show Jenny around and introduce her to a couple people.