Social Network Scientist

There are many opinions floating around the web as to what the exact formula is for creating a successful social network.

The Internet Business and e-commerce news site, BizReport, sum up their take on the matter with, Revenue is the key to social network success.

I agree that a social sites ability to generate revenue, plays a very important part in its existence (and in some cases, it’s extinction), but how much revenue a social site is generating, is more of a symptom of a network’s overall health than it is the key to developing a growing network. To put the main focus on making money, especially in the infantile stages of a social network’s development, misses the true essence of what a social network thrives on.

Information Week with 5 Keys To Social Networking Success and posting 5 Reasons Why Social Networks Can Succeed. Both point out important traits and aspects of social network sites that are important to their success, but neither directly identify the one aspect that believe is the cornerstone to a successful social network site.

The number one key to the success of social networks is their ability to carry valuable conversations inside and outside of the network. The Cluetrain Guys have been telling us since 1999, markets are conversations. The phrase rings true 8 years later, as online communications have been integrated even further into our lives, well beyond the primitive concept of the web. The voices of markets in conversation are louder than ever before.

The term markets, is generally thought of as a term specifically associated with marketing and selling, but markets don’t start and stop with the buying and selling of products and services. Markets extend far beyond the definition many have slapped on the term. Markets exist in everywhere, from corporate board members to that small group of boy scouts that meets down the street. Markets are clusters, some small, some large, some ginormous.

WD-40 Oil and a BoomerangSocial sites thrive on conversation. They are conversations. When I say conversation, I’m talking about a true dialogue between two or more people. This eliminates talking at and to, and encourages talking with. This means removing conversation roadblocks, and introducing methods that act as enzymes for connecting users and creating valuable conversation. To put is simply, make sure your social site possesses these two traits:

  1. Make it Oily, so that conversations slide across the network on onto the web and spread easily. 

  2. Shape it like Boomerang, so that conversations always return to the network.

It’s important to realize, that creating conversation shouldn’t be the goal of a social site. Social networks are conversations, but they are created and exist through the users in the network. The goal should be to provide a platform that enhances users ability to connect and communicate with each other. It’s our human nature to want share with others of like mind (and sometimes of a very different mind). Conversations have existed even before humans wore clothes, and believe me, they will continue, whether your social site exists or not. I say this not to be a stick in the mud, but I want to present a clear understanding of the role social networks play in conversation.

Not all conversation will lift a social network off the ground. It is key for conversation to be valuable to everyone participating. Worthless conversations won’t spread.

The value of a conversation is very subjective to say the least. Twitter provides us with a good example of the subjective nature of conversation. There are many people who find no value in being limited to communicate with only 140 characters, but others such as Micro Persuasion’s Steve Rubel, have found Twitter to be a great way to keep the conversation flowing and keep readers connected and informed in between blog posts.

Paving the way for valuable conversation is no easy task. Valuable conversation develops when users are given the right balance of freedom while the network maintains right amount of control.

MySpace is an example of a social site that some would argue allows users too much freedom. Although it is still the largest social site on the web, many of its users are moving away from the network because they feel too many roadblocks have been removed, allowing an overwhelming amount of spam, fake identities, and private accounts, all of which make it incredibly hard for conversation to develop. Users are left filtering content more, and talking less.

This retreat from MySpace has led many users to Facebook, which is one of the most talked about social networks on the web right now. Facebook maintains more control over conversations by only allowing communication between users that they are connected either directly, through a network, or group. They have also put in place, a strict policy on mass messaging and spam. Many have found this system to be very effective in keeping out unwanted conversations that not only annoy us and take up time, but also water down valuable conversation.

Facebook doesn’t have all the answers. As I said before, valuable conversation is very subjective. There are still those that feel like Facebook has put too many barriers in the way of conversation.

The exact formula for creating a successful social network has yet to developed, because the web is an ever-changing medium, but one ingredient remains constant:

valuable conversations

Do you see any untapped areas in which social networks could stimulate conversation even more?