Coming soon: Network Overload

Source: Flikr user NorthernLaLa

Do you remember how your mom would tell you every year on Halloween that too much candy at once would make you sick? That you should save some for later, space it out over a few days? But that you were so excited to have all that candy that you scarfed it all down, and then paid for it later?

While a good deal of social networking might be in its infancy, we have to assume that eventually, a lot of these tools and tactics will become mainstream– if you can’t claim that already. As the late majorities and laggards start to come around, it’ won’t be long before Facebook and Twitter are as ubiquitous as e-mail. Niche-specific social networks have begun popping up like Whack-a-Moles. Will all this lead to a social meltdown? Will we really be able to keep track of all of our friends, followers, feeds and networks? Will we NEED a separate network for every conceivable aspect of our lives? Will too much make us sick to our stomachs?

I’m currently a member of two Ning networks: PROpenMic and my industry-specific network. (I’m sure many of you know this, but Ning is a platform for building a Facebook-like social network for a specific group of people.) As Ning and similar platforms become more widespread and more people become comfortable with social networking, I can only imagine that the number of groups creating their own social network will rise dramatically. Remember how it used to be so hard to build a web site and so not may people/organizations had one?

I can envision a point where my university alumni association, church, town, dentist’s office, neighborhood, family and even my pets all have separate social networks. It’s already underway- my family is getting into Geni, my alumni association has integrated lots of social networking features into its Web site. Dave Fleet just noted that he’s seen an uptick in Ning networks and inspired the title for this post:

fleet

The more diffuse my involvement in social networking, the less engaged I am. I used to spend a lot of time on Facebook. Then I discovered Twitter. I’m a member of Geni, GoodReads, TripAdvisor– and about a dozen other sites. The more I join, the less I seem to interact. My interest in one network gives way to another. I’m not so sure that it’s a matter of having the time to participate as having the attention span. Even services like FriendFeed that consolidate my activity into one place make it only slightly easier to handle. And often I’m connecting and interacting with the same people across all these different networks.

So what does the future look like? As we join more social networks, will we actually socialize less? Will people join everything but participate in nothing? What good is a network if none of the members actively participate?

People have been postulating for a while now that “social networking fatigue” will force more interoperability between networks. Will one network, like Facebook, dominate and roll-up all other, smaller networks under its umbrella? I don’t think people will want to manage dozens of profiles and interactions at dozens of Web sites.

As we counsel clients and businesses on social media and introduce them to the possibilities, I think it’s important to emphasize that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD (see: shoulder pads, Furbies, and the Pontiac Aztek). Social networking strategies need to reflect a business goals and provide value to an organization’s stakeholders. Just because it’s easy to create a specific social network for your customers/employees/members doesn’t mean that it’s the best tool or method for engaging that audience. Look at what’s already out there and what tools the audience is already using. Are most of them active on Facebook? Maybe a fan page is a better alternative to a separate social network. Maybe all you need to do is jazz up your existing Web site with some interactive features that don’t require a login or profile.

In all our excitement about new tools and opportunities that social media presents, we have to remember that eating all the candy at once is going to make everyone sick. Mom was right – you’ve got to pace yourself!

Image via Flickr user NorthernLaLa

Geni.com: Stealth social media

My mom is a Baby Boomer, and I don’t really think she could be labeled as an early adopter of technology. She teaches elementary school and uses the computer in her classroom probably better than most teachers (she made a blog for her kindergarten class one year and had the students post a sentence each day about what they learned). But my mom doesn’t really participate in social media on a personal level, and in fact, she’s pretty skeptical of it. I’m pretty sure she’s never heard of Twitter or LinkedIn, doesn’t subscribe to any blogs, and definitely, definitely doesn’t want anything to do with Facebook. She’s wary of posting personal information online and thinks that Facebook is “something that you young people do.”

Geni

But a over a year and a half ago, I started creating our family tree on a site called Geni.com. You can create profiles for members of your family tree and invite them to join. If they do, they take over control of their profile and can then add additional family members. My family tree now stands at 500+ members, stretching back to Tipperary in 1816. Each family member can add photos and videos to their profile, edit personal information, and post messages to other family members’ pages. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

My mom and her siblings love Geni. They post birthday greetings, anniversary messages, and comment on pictures of relatives’ kids. My mom’s oldest sister has really gotten into it and added scanned images of birth, death, and wedding certificates of some of our first ancestors. She’s connected with our third cousins twice removed (Geni calculates those weird relationship rules for you) and added all the family genealogy data that previously was scattered around on a dozen different paper trees.

My mom is all over this “family” version of Facebook. She doesn’t view it as social networking; maybe because it’s a little more controlled and she knows that only her family members will see her profile. But she’s actively participating.

The PEW Internet & American Life Project recently published a report on Internet usage for American adults. According to the report, 19 percent of online adults aged 45-54 have some sort of online profile (Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.) and only 10 percent of online adults aged 55-64 have one. These numbers are increasing but the report shows that by a wide margin, social networks are, as Brian Solis puts it, “still a phenomenon of the young.” The report also indicates that 60 percent of adults restrict access to their profile so that only their friends can see it.

My extended family’s online presence seems to mimic the age splits in the PEW report. Most of the cousins in my generation have multiple social network profiles and have joined Geni, but we all prefer to connect to each other through Facebook. We post pictures there, send birthday greetings to each others’ walls, and connect and share family news. Many of my cousins are fairly open and don’t restrict their profiles.

Family members in my mom’s generation use Geni for all the same purposes, but almost none of them has a Facebook profile. In many cases, Geni is their only online profile, and they’ve set it up so only members of our family can see it. I’m not sure if my mom is intimindated by Facebook or just thinks it’s not for her, but I’m wondering if Geni will serve as the “gateway drug” for her to branch out and start accepting social media more openly. We’ll see.