Jon Udell just wrote a thought-provoking piece about the difficulty of new social networks reaching critical mass, and the obvious fact that there already is an uber-social network at critical mass, if only we can make things interoperate:
Years ago at BYTE Magazine my friend Ben Smith, who was a Unix greybeard even then (now he’s a Unix whitebeard), made a memorable comment that’s always stuck with me. We were in the midst of evaluating a batch of LAN email products. “One of these days,” Ben said in, I think, 1991, “everyone’s going to look up from their little islands of LAN email and see this giant mothership hovering overhead called the Internet.”
Increasingly I’ve begun to feel the same way about the various social networks. How many networks can one person join? How many different identities can one person sanely manage? How many different tagging or photo-uploading or friending protocols can one person deal with?
Recently Gary McGraw echoed Ben Smith’s 1991 observation. “People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network,” he said, “but I’m already part of a network, it’s called the Internet.”
Jon very much echoes my own sentiments. What really needs to be done is not just to connect the various social networks that do exist in internet network-of-networks style, but also to social-network enable our real social network apps: our IM, our email, our phone. Where, I keep asking vendors, is the Web 2.0 address book?
When one of the big communications vendors (email, IM OR phone) gets this right, simply by instrumenting our communications so that the social network becomes visible (and under the control of the user), it seems to me that they could blow away a lot of the existing social network froth. That being said, when I’ve had this conversation with Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, he’s pointed out that he’s well aware of that possibility, and has been working for years to layer additional value on top of the raw social network data. And he’s very right about that.
To use Ben Smith’s analogy about the internet as mother ship: if you were a proprietary LAN vendor trying to fight the internet, it was game over. But if you were a LAN vendor who was on the right bandwagon, you became Cisco.