Thursday, January 03, 2008

Social networking: Infested with "parasites"

A number of my clients do work that's involved with or affected by online social networking. I have a basic familiarity with social networking sites for professional reasons, and also for my own business and personal networking purposes.

For many years, "social networking" online meant subscribing to mailing lists or perhaps using a bulletin board site with a graphic interface that allowed members to post comments (in threads), post pictures, and attach or post files that others could download. A good example of this would be Yahoo Groups.

It was only about six or so years ago that more robust social networking sites came into being. The best-known is (the now rather outdated and ad-infested) It pre-populated its databases with the names of schools and companies, set up biographical templates that made it easy for individuals to post profile information, and enabled individuals to contact each other via the site without having to divulge personal contact information (such as email address or telephone number). For quite a while, and various online dating websites were the major companies in the social networking space; then LinkedIn set up a widely admired business networking site where members' privacy is protected because the only way to reach someone you don't already know is through a mutual contact. (If I'm applying for a job at Company X, I can see who in my network is linked to someone at Company X, and I can ask for an introduction.)

Meanwhile, MySpace and Facebook had jazzed up this concept for teens and 20-somethings, with much less emphasis on privacy and much more on playfulness. Facebook recently caught on with grownups, and even more recently Twitter stepped in with its charmingly quirky interface for viewing short updates from friends. Meanwhile, Biznik ("business networking that doesn't suck") has made a bid to mix online social networking with marketing and live "indie" business events in major cities, offering seminars, happy hours, and even conferences.

All seemed well and good.

Until recently, when a whole new crop of sites and applications turned up and wanted to be "extensions" of my LinkedIn or Facebook experience: I tried out a few of them because friends suggested it. Big mistake. Once you sign up, you just can't get these people out of your (email) hair.

What I find fascinating about these sites—which I've come to think of as "parasites"—is that no matter how much email they send me, I still can't figure out what on earth it is that they do that is not almost the same as what is already being done for me perfectly adequately by LinkedIn or Facebook.

They seem to fill absolutely no need whatsoever—except to invite me to interactions that are at best benign online Tupperware parties and at worst annoying pyramid schemes involving any data I've placed on Facebook. Facebook is coming dangerously close to "jumping the shark" as more and more of these creepy little data suckers (often in the guise of amusing diversions) try to cozy up to it; I was cheered to hear that Facebook swatted the wrist of a well-known blogger for violating the site's terms of use when he gave a company called Plaxo access to his account to test a beta of theirs that can "scrape" (harvest) the data of people in someone's Facebook network and move it to the Plaxo site.

I remain a huge fan of Twitter, but suspect that the day is soon coming when I will find myself forced to read Tweets from people (or businesses) I don't want to follow, or get stuck reading ads in order to use Twitter. And today I got email via Biznik sent by an illiterate teenager from a third-world country looking for a, er, date. Lovely. (I reported it to Biznik, but I don't intend to spend my time flagging kinky member profiles for them.)

If this keeps up, I'm going to retreat back to LinkedIn, pull up the drawbridge, and order a cauldron of boiling oil.

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