Is this a relationship?

My sister Chris is on Facebook. No, it’s not the sign of the Apocalypse. It’s a sign that social media is moving to a new phase.

I’m sure Seinfeld had a show about this — how to tell when something was no longer cool. I’m sure Jerry and the gang had some secret sign that told them when something had left the edge and simply become mainstream.

I remember when I knew that email had reached that point. It was when my parents got an email address. That was it — it was over. The rollout was complete. Global domination was achieved. Sure there might be a few left over folks who wouldn’t get with the program. Heck I’m sure there’s somebody out there with a black and white tv. But outside of a few hold-outs, the job was done.

I wrote a column once called the “dot customer” that predicted when consumer oriented e-commerce would reach that bellwether of success. It was when my wife started shopping on-line.

What I was amazed at then was the acceleration. For those of us who used it in its early primitive form, primarily as a business communication tool and occasionally as a way of keeping in touch with folks around the world — the rise of email took a long time. Years.

The move to e-commerce took a noticeably shorter period of time.

But social networking — wow. It seems like months ago that Facebook hit the scene and now — everyone is on the bandwagon. Even my sister Chris. The last Luddite. She sent me a “friend request” the other day.

Somebody told me in conversation that the biggest growth in Facebook ranks was now, as he so delicately put it, “people in your age range.”

Now on one hand, this is the triumph of Metcalfe’s Law. For those of you who don’t know Metcalfe’s Law, it’s a way of calculating the value of a network. For those who think this way, a network’s value is the square of it’s nodes.

For those who can’t quite grasp that, let me explain it the way it was explained to me. What is the value of one fax machine? Nothing. There’s nobody to send a fax to. Add one more and what is the value? It just went up — because there is someone to send and receive your fax. And there might be mutual value for them. Start adding people and the value of the network grows by doubling and redoubling — until it starts to grow at exponential rates, gathering speed like a snowball rolling down hill.

A guy named Metcalfe predicted that. Smart guy.

What I don’t think he anticipated that was that this growth of network value would itself increase in speed each time. Hence the rapid rise of social networking from uber-cool to ubiquitous.

But here’s the point where I want to ask the question. Has the network really grown in value? This isn’t me being simply a contrarian. In fact, I don’t have an answer. I simply raise the question.

Not everything that gets mass acceptance increases in value. Fads burn out, trends die. And when they die — or crash, the seeds of that destruction are hidden by the initial success. Think back to our Seinfeld model and think of a restaurant that had amazing popularity, but was on it’s way downhill while still drawing record crowds. As Yogi Berra was reputed to say, “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.”

Or if you are astute, think of the dot-com crash. Or the recent financial meltdown. From “top of game” to “down in flames.”

Now this isn’t a big deal for my sister Chris. She might not even notice the bubble bursting — if it does. It might be a problem for a corporate sponsor who invested heavily in social networking only to see it go down in flames — if it does.

The good news is that rarely are these permanent crashes. Many times the sequence is that something hits a success track, gets over hyped, crashes and burns — and then resurfaces months or even years later under a different name. Yesterday’s Application Service Providers were replaced by today’s Software as a Service. I’m sure you can think of a few more.

But the life of some companies, people’s investments and a few careers can take some hard knocks — and they have.

So what are you to do? If you don’t get on board, then you miss the boat. If you jump in, you could go down in flames or waste your money and efforts on something that won’t pay off.

I don’t have all the answers on this one. I can offer a couple of observations. First, there are some worrying items in social networking as we see it. One thing that bothers me is that it appears to be built on a house of cards. Everyone is trying to be the new Facebook, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Facebook grew out of the student market and tapped into a phenomenon associated with a younger demographic. From the time when you saw how many kids you could put in a Volkswagen, to sit ins and marches — there has always been an attraction to trying to draw the largest crowd of friends together.

It’s not that this has no attraction to an older segment — but it has it’s roots and it’s big appeal to the younger demographic. Indeed, I would maintain that when this phenomenon hits an older demographic, there has to be more than simply the joy of attendance. Crowds require causes or some additional value.

I haven’t really seen that in the social networking arena yet. Not that I’ve given up. I’m a twitterer, I’m Linked-In, I “Plaxo” and — although I use it less and less, I’m on Facebook. I have contacts. I have seen some value in tracking people I haven’t seen for some time. But I work at it. I can’t afford to invest hours upon hours with no value coming from it.

Much of what happens isn’t relationships. Relationships are about mutual exchanges of value My friend Ray Mackenzie and his co-authors made that point in the book The Relationship Based Enterprise. It’s that word mutual that holds my attention. I’m struggling to see that in this new explosion of social networking.

I don’t poke very much. I tweet a little. I never throw a sheep. And if you find me on a friend finder, and I don’t know you, I probably won’t respond to your invite to become a friend. In fact, I joined Plaxo as an experiment because they seemed to be aiming at those who wanted more exclusive — and more valuable networks.

And if I said I wasn’t worried about the “Hotel California” syndrome I’d be lying. For those of you who don’t follow the reference, Hotel California was a song by the Eagles with the famous line, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” When I see Linked-In’s top end price of $499 per month (that’s right – per month) I wonder what the end of this game looks like.

But I don’t know where this is really going. I’m watching carefully. I’m building my network based on value and I’m finding ways to use these tools. But I’m not betting the store on them. Not without a clear indication of value. Because investing in value — whether it be stocks or technology — has a way of paying off in the long run. I’m looking for things that enhance that mutual exchange of value that defines a relationship.

How about you? I’m really interested in your comments.

1 Comment

Filed under People, Social Networking, Strategy, Technology

One response to “Is this a relationship?

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