Earlier this week a friend of mine updated his IM status message asking his friends for thoughts on the future of social networking as he was getting ready to speak at an event on that very topic. I think that what the Xobni guys are working on is the future of where social networking is going. Phase I was simply getting people connected. “Friending up” your network was a necessary evil and I think people will continue to do this. Phase II, which is where I think we are today, is really about adding some context to the nature of relationships. We’re still working through this phase, be it on LinkedIn or Facebook, and I do think that the near-term dominant model will be for users who care about adding context to the nature of their connections doing so in a manual fashion.
So what’s next? Well, I think what’s next (and by far most interesting) is some concept of the “strength” of a connection. Specifically, today I can see a lot of my friends’ social networks, but I have no idea for the relative strength of connections. Sure, if I see Person A knows Person B, I can always make an offline inquiry to see if that connection is strong or weak. But very soon I think we are going to have tools like Xobni that profile communications patterns and surface that information both to end users and to other applications. And it won’t be just social networking and community applications that benefit. Enterprise applications (collaboration tools, CRM tools, HR/recruiting systems, etc) will all benefit from having access to some of this information. We’ll call this contextual “strength” Phase III.
Phase III is really interesting to me because I think it has to be a largely machine-driven approach. Communication patterns are too dynamic for any user to bother continually updating “strength” of connections. Also, as Xobni has shown me, if you are a power emailer you’re likely to be surprised by who shows up as ranking highly. There’s no reason the same can’t be done for IM. I’m not sure that I’m going to turn my phone logs over to some 3rd party analytics company, but IM and email would be a pretty decent picture of what I do and with whom I communicate. Passive profiling of communications patterns is going to be really interesting and I think will expose really interesting information about the nature of communications. I think Xobni is on to something really cool and big as it’s delivering value to me today (even though I have to use it in Outlook) and I can see a path to a lot more value in the future.
As an aside, I think this is the best shot that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have to wedge their way back into social networking relevance. They already own the message stream and have the data they need to get a sense for who knows whom. It will be interesting to see whether they choose to open this information up and let other applications take advantage of it or whether they use it for the bedrock of their own auto-generated social networks.