As those of you who know me well know, I am a *huge* fan of social networking software.  In business school, I floated a business plan to forcibly create a social network by mining users' Outlook contacts pretty much by force.  Didn't work so much...something about personal data being sacred.  :-)  I helped classmates sign on to LinkedIn in 2003 at a time when social networking was in its relative infancy...and fortunately today I know what is going on with the 100+ people from my class who I knew well.  I also tried (unsuccessfully) launching a social network of entrepreneurially minded people across the business school and the college of engineering.  I maintain profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn, and I use them both all the time to find out what people are doing.  It's a long-winded way of saying that I'm huge fan of social networks and I do believe that social networks are the future of how we will communicate, keep up with friends, share our lives, be marketed to, etc.

But there are some weaknesses...

For instance, have you ever gotten a social network invitation from "that guy"?  "That guy" or "that gal" can come in many forms:

  • Father Wayback -- the person who hasn't talked to you in 20 years, but finds you on Facebook & decides that your relationship is all of a sudden relevant again,
  • Dr. Acquaintance -- the person who you know & like, but it isn't like you're calling them when you are bored on a random Thursday night,
  • Mrs. "Seriously?" -- the person who you wouldn't regard as a friend at all in any context,
  • Mr. "Who" -- the person who you don't remember despite hours of racking your brain,
  • Captain Obligation -- the person who becomes your friend not because he/she really wants to be your friend...but rather the person who *has* to be your friend for some artificial reason,
  • Miss Second degree -- the friend of one of your friends who you never spoke with, but for some reason wants you to be their friend.

Given that it is currently so hard (not to mention rude & expressive) to deny or ignore a friend request, I find that my Facebook friends list is really a mish-mash of all of these + people I'm actually really close to.  The funny thing about it is that my closest friends aren't on the system yet.

I have always tried to maintain some level of integrity in my LinkedIn profile -- I set up a rule early that I would only accept friend requests on LinkedIn from people I know well.  There are a few exceptions but for whatever reason, Facebook isn't as high quality a list.  Maybe I regard LinkedIn as a more "serious" network and Facebook as more of a lifestyle network.

The second problem I have with Facebook is the fact that the system has introduced me to a number of my wife's previously anonymous ex-boyfriends.  Not that I care, but these people now have names, lives, faces, profiles.  I've found scumbags, used car salesmen, and a few perfectly reasonable people.  Sadly I'm just scratching the surface.  I seriously thought about creating a Facebook group called "Thank you Facebook for introducing me to all my wife's ex-boyfriends", but I ultimately didn't want to give any of them that satisfaction. ;-)  Fortunately these guys are still largely anonymous to me, though I know deep down inside that I *will* run into at least one in the business world at some point later...and he'll have that 'twinkle' in his eye...and I'll get vomitous and perhaps later want to punch a hole through a wall.

Problem #3...a younger colleague at work who I really respect pointed out a huge flaw in the system.  Let's call him Bob to keep this anonymous.  Anyway, both of us are friends with a few senior folks at Microsoft who have had long illustrious careers in the software/computer/internet industry.

So Bob says to me..."Chris...do I really want <insert senior person's name> to see pictures of me funneling a beer?  Do I really want him/her to see pictures of me hanging out in a bar with red eyes and a goofy grin on my face?"

Great point.  Surely we need some way to expose certain information from our profiles to certain 'groups' of people.  If Facebook is going to be both a business and a social networking platform, access to & control of information will become key.

Finally, I probably have the same gripe about LinkedIn as many of you who use the system.  LinkedIn is just about the same as it was when I joined 4 years ago.  Most innovations from them have come in the form of new ways to monetize me (gee thanks) as opposed to making the data & the experience stickier and more addictive.  I think LinkedIn could be *fantastic*, but they need to keep improving what is a great system to compete long-term.

All hail the social graph!