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Walk past a "Heavy Plant" warning and wonder vaguely if the trees thought it was for them; if whoever put it up had enough imag...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

6 degrees of separation

Silly me, I thought social networking meant a trip to the pub (this may be why my boss has described my networking skills as "pretty modest" but he seems to treat networking as a trip to the pub as well so I suspect this is something else). Apparently the web has changed much of this and social networking is now achieved by technological means as well.

To try and get a handle on what I might use these for I have been trying out various "Social Networking" websites. Some over the past couple of months/years some only very recently. I am now on twitter, Linkedin and Facebook as well as MySpace, Flickr and just about anything else with a crap name. I stopped short of Bebo, I don't want to be part of a social network that sounds like a teddy bear (although I am on Orkut, which sounds like a character from terrible Eighties cartoon He-Man).

There are hundreds of these bloody things, they can't all be useful. I can understand when they have a set purpose like Linkedin (business connections) and Flickr (photos), but Facebook, although enourmous fun for the first 5 days of membership, seems too broad in application to be useful, as is MySpace which seems to have become infested with musos as well as aggravating teenagers. MySpace also has the distasteful honour of being owned by Uncle Rupert, it is also poorly designed, hard to use and forces you to put your name and photograph next to adverts. I don't use that much.

The biggest problem for these sites is that each one seems to want to be the master account; it assumes that you will be logged in to that site and that site alone to update your personal details, status, photos, what you had for breakfast etc. I spend a lot of time online but even I draw the line at being logged in to a website pumping adverts at me all day.

One of the main reasons I use Google's services for the majority of my online life is that it is all behind one login all the time and that I can update most things from one place or go to the exact spot I want with a single click and get everything I want to do in my personal online world finished before I finish my morning coffee. This is slowly becoming more and more possible as each site publishes an API and I know for a fact that some online service providers are building software that will aggregate all these things to a single spot. This is a spectacularly difficult endeavour and as a result there aren't any plans to turn this into a product as yet - but you can bet anything you like there will be, because I'd use it.

I had hoped that by looking on each of these sites I would discover which was more used by people I know and could stick with that. Having uploaded my contacts into each one and searched the databases I have discovered that everyone is hedging their bets; everyone uses a few of them infrequently. This tells me that the whole thing is either a waste of time or that this is a space that needs not just consolidation but a good idea of what it aiming to do and a better idea of how people do it. Might I suggest some offline time to facilitate this process? There's nothing like actually socialising to teach you how people network socially, or trying to find a new job to teach you just how much easier this could be made.

Despite myself I quite enjoy the online social networking thing. The sites use the '6 degrees' principle to great effect. Once you have made a connection with someone you can see all their connections and send 'friend requests' to them. It's slightly nauseating in a primary school 'will you be my friend?' kind of way but it can serve to put you back in touch with people you haven't seen in quite some time and has the addictive collecting and slightly competitive feeling to it that football stickers used to have before I grew up (had Watford not lost that FA Cup final to Everton in such a terrible way I might still be collecting them).

These sites also allow you to make a very public tit of yourself and give other people enormous scope to do the same. Posting photos of yourself and others wide eyed and legless allows everyone in your network to see them unless you are very familiar with each site's privacy settings and use them carefully. I am not the kind of person who thinks their social life should need tight administrative protocols and I react badly to having to use them. Also the confluence of professional and social is a tricky area for me, it can make me uneasy and it takes me a while to shake the feeling that I should be behaving in a manner that 'isn't me'. Social networking sites are starting to blur the boundaries between a social networks and professional ones and that makes me uneasy for the same reason.