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