So I’m now a member of three major online networking sites, Ryze, LinkedIn and Orkut. So far, I haven’t seen any of my friends on all three networks (they probably have better things to do with their time!) but it’s interesting to compare the different models of online networking and ask the question of whether they really work…
When I look at these services, I believe that LinkedIn is the most professional, with its focus on business networks and professional relationships, Ryze is the most socially oriented (probably a la friendster, but I’m loath to join yet another one of these communities), and Orkut tries to cover both areas by having a hybrid that offers professional networking (sort of), while also including sexual preferences, information about body piercings, and more.
But here’s the interesting thing about these: they’re just not that compelling.
Perhaps I’m just not wired to go to a Web site every day to check in and see what’s going on, but when I think of “online communities” I think of small, private mailing lists I’m on where I have a significant amount in common with the entire community, not the virtual hodgepodge masquerading as a cocktail party of Ryze or Orkut.
LinkedIn is somewhat different because of its business focus, but even then take away the ‘you’re 3 links away from Dave’ gimmick and these all end up feeling somewhat like overblown address books, somehow.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the concept behind these, and goodness knows, we can all use new and fun ways to expand our circles and meet new people, but too often popping into one of these services feels like a good idea that’s rapidly devolved into a popularity contest. On Orkut, for example, I have 51 friends. Unless you’re looking at my entry on my friend’s information page, then I’m listed as having 42. Or in the Boulder discussion group, where I’m shown as having 38 friends.
Similarly, in Ryze, there are friend lists and even a guest book where people I don’t know from the proverbial hole in the ground share comments like “you sound like a great guy. Please come visit my guest book too.” and then ask me to link to them as a friend. That’s what it takes to be a friend in the online world? Buddy, can you spare a dime?
Then there’s LinkedIn, which, because of its serious slant, somehow ends up being even more like a popularity contest. It’s like the unspoken conference dinner competition of whether more people come up to you after the dinner talk than the people standing near you. LinkedIn has the same random people masquerading as friends problem too. In fact someone I’ve never heard from has sent me a message that reads:
“I noticed that you are also using LinkedIn. I’d be happy to recommend you to the people I know. If you feel the same, please accept my invitation to connect networks. I’ll only pass requests on to you from people I trust, and I hope you’ll do the same for me.”
Now why would I want to do this and tell everyone that this person is my “friend” or “associate” if it wasn’t just to inflate my LinkedIn connectivity value?
That, perhaps, is the greatest irony of all with these so-called online communities. In the virtual world, friends are made by simply signing a digital guestbook, clicking ‘add as friend’, or sending a generic message to them. Does it reduce friendship down to connectivity, or do these sites all miss the point of what friendship really is? I suspect the latter. And as for me, I’ll stick to making my friends through my favorite few mailing lists and face to face at networking events where I can make eye contact. How about you?