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3/23/2004
06:19 PM
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Circle of Friends

Social networking with software: It can be positive, but not as a goal in itself.

I've always said, somewhat jokingly, that there are only 35 people in all of Silicon Valley: We just keep circulating from one company to the next. It's one of the network effects of having worked in high tech for more than 20 years. In almost every business or social setting, I'm likely to meet someone I know or who knows me. And a lot of my business and my clients' businesses rely on that phenomenon. Six degrees of separation hardly begins to describe it.

The other thing I always say is that business is about people, not companies or job titles. The value of who we are is infinitely more important than what we do or for whom we do it — the what and for whom can change all the time, but the who is immutable (except via death, drugs, or psychotherapy, which I won't even begin to touch here). This sets up a social meritocracy that makes our interpersonal relationships more important than almost anything. Who you know and how well you know them become as important, if not more so, than what you know.

Social Connections

These concepts are at the heart of the new social networking phenomenon that has been clawing its way out of academics and into the "real world" of enterprise software. Social networking seeks to automate the social connections between people to the advantage of all. The software does this by discovering who in your social network knows the person outside your network whom you're trying to reach, and, depending on how the software works, facilitates a direct connection. A number of companies — Spoke Software and LinkedIn, among others — have emerged recently that can discover these connections and broker a contact that, hopefully, gets the job (usually sales or business development) done a lot better and faster than the haphazard connections most of us maintain today.

The irony of the growth of a social networking software market is that the more complete the automation of social networking becomes, the more the value of the social meritocracy is diminished. Once you and your competitor can get to the same buyer through a similarly close connection, your connection is relatively worthless and you're forced to compete on the hard stuff: value, features, functionality, genuine merit, and total cost of ownership. Not who knows whom.

Of course, social network theory is pretty adamant about the inability of a network to ever be at what the academics call a "state of equilibrium." The complexity of human society and socialization is that everyone can't have the same quality and quantity of relationships as everyone else. We can't all be best friends. So rule number one of social network software is that the moment a network achieves perfection, it becomes valueless. And rule number two is that perfection will never happen.

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