More Thoughts on the Value of Interest Graphs and “Small” Networks

This is the second in a series I posts about how I’ve been using social networking tools lately and what I’ve learned by extension.

While my Facebook usage waxes and wanes, my overall time spent on social services has increased. Simply put, my time spent on Facebook is being replaced with time spent on purpose-specific social networks and services. I find that Facebook is just getting to be too wide of a jumble of people that I know in a wide variety of contexts. So the things that I share tend to be those that appeal to the wide variety of people who are my friends on Facebook. And I have no interest in trying to create groups / lists on Facebook to microtarget the audiences who might find a given piece of information relevant. I didn’t create my Facebook social graph with groups and grouping in mind. And, being in technology, I have a wide mix of friends, business associates, classmates, and others in my Facebook network. And I’ve found once you open up the gates and starting accepting a wide spectrum of requests, it’s hard to shut that off.

I’ve noticed that I’ve mentally sorted social networks into four buckets and my activity and energy is gravitating in a very specific way (namely “above the line” in the graphic below, with the notable exception of Twitter):

Increasingly, I find myself using more social services with the asymmetric follower model built for a specific purpose. More and more, my social tool usage is beginning to mirror how I used search during the rise of vertical search engines early last decade. I have one “core” service (Facebook) but am increasingly turning to other services for more specialized content – they just do it better.

In the same way that there was a set of categories where general search failed to provide relevant results (jobs, dating, travel, etc) there is an increasing set of circumstances where a purpose-specific network with an asymmetric follow model just works better for me. Quora is great for Q&A. Instagram is great for sharing photos. LinkedIn works well for professional connections. And I love foursquare for sharing location with a small set of friends. The only broad-based network where I find my time investment increasing is Twitter – and that’s largely because I like to share news articles and it’s very low friction.

When I first started using Twitter, I thought the asymmetric follow model might dominate simply because it’s easier to manage – you don’t have to take action on friend requests or curate who sees what. The more I use asymmetric follower services, the more nuanced I think the success criteria are:

Simple asymmetry is not good enough – you still need relevant people on the service. I’ve tried a few products in the social space that use an asymmetric follower model and they just didn’t have the right set of people on the service. There weren’t enough people on those services who could produce or point me toward interesting content. The low-friction approach wasn’t enough in and of itself.

Asymmetric follow allows me to follow topics or people, not just people. This is actually a big deal for me. There are some services where what I really want to follow is a topic, thread, concept, or idea. You can’t be “friends” with a topic or an idea – that’s a follower model for sure. Being “friends” with a topic is sort of like the early attempts to become “friends” with a brand on Facebook. The model just doesn’t work.

There are some categories where it’s hard to imagine an asymmetric alternative. I’ve been trying to think about what an asymmetric follower version of LinkedIn would look like. Part of what makes LinkedIn work is that you and the person have both opted in and agreed that you want to be connections, whatever that means to each of you. I struggle to think about how you could have an asymmetric follower version of a professional network. But I would have said the same thing about an asymmetric version of status updates and sharing until I saw Twitter.

And that’s why I really like asymmetric social services. I don’t have to make friend acceptance decisions. And it feels task appropriate to filter which people I choose to follow based on the context of the service. And that’s how I use foursquare. I have a relatively small set of friends on foursquare and the value of that service does not depend on raw social graph expansion and increasing friend counts. I follow the people I really want to follow and the fact that location is private males it easy for people to curate the network of people they want to know where they are. And it’s one of my favorite apps.

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  • John Porter

    Very good information and I share your same comments and understanding of usage and emerging networks, so to a great degree there is a great deal of control in the different relations vs the type of network, to have the best experience online? I see facebook, as a step on the stair case for general usage but google + and foursquare more personalized! thanks for your information