Friday, December 01, 2006

Community Immunity - Will Social Networks Tip?

I recently listed to the audio version of the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. He has a more recent update to the end of the book where he talks about the concept of immunity and social epidemics.

He introduced the concept of the “fax effect” originally proposed by Kevin Kelly. If you are unfamiliar it goes like this: The first fax machine cost millions of R&D dollars, and retailed for a few thousand dollars, but was relatively useless since there were no other machines to communicate with. Each successive fax machine purchased made all the previous machines more valuable. When you bought a fax machine, you were buying access to the network which is much more valuable than the machine itself. This is referred to as the law of plentitude. Cell companies use a similar concept to market and sell their products and services. The logic of the network is that power and value come from abundance.

Gladwell continues to explain that this is why email is supposed to be so powerful, but is this true? Just like the phone network has grown so large that users have built up ‘immunity’ (answering machines, caller ID, and other filtering mechanisms), so too is this starting to happen with email. When you first got email, and had your first few members of the network, you spent much time and effort crafting well thought out messages. Now we get 1000 (hopefully filtered) spam emails, and often 10’s or hundreds of messages from people. Most email users are now creating shorter responses, being more selective and delayed in response. Gladwell argues that these are all symptoms of immunity, and that large network communication channels have, and will continue to suffer growth tipping points creating immunity, similar to how virus’s spread and eventually die once enough users become immune.

My question is whether this will happen to social networking communities, and I think unfortunately it will. Think about MySpace. Who can really manage a hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’. Once the novelty wears off, when does this network just become like the hundreds of emails you get. Social networks could too reach an immunity tipping point, where they become so large that the very reason that they seemed so attractive, cause its own demise. In a members’ quest to become connected, they are starting to repeat what other networks have already succumbed to. Linkedin is also beginning to show signs of this, with ‘super connectors’ who will link with anyone and everyone. It seems like a great way to grow the network, but this is essentially the beginning of a possible immunity tipping point. Ultimately it comes down to the community members to keep the social network thriving, but not letting it get out of control to a point where community immunity kicks in.


Justin Beller said...

Kevin - Thanks for the update on one of my favorite books. I think it basically comes down to quality over quantity. I agree - at some point we will come to an immunity "tipping point" regarding online social networks like LinkedIn and MySpace. Just like the filters we have put in place for e-mail (spam blockers) and telephones (no-call lists and caller ID), the same will happen with the social networks. It hasn't happened to me yet, but as a LinkedIn user someday I'll get regular e-mail invites from people I don't even know to join their network just because we have some small, minute thing in common. The best way to keep a community that you yourself build active and thriving is to enact a “velvet rope policy”. Just like a trendy night club, who do you want on your guest list? I’m not saying folks should discriminate, but one should maintain focus in who they want to do business with and who they want to network with. If you try to be all things to all people (or everybody’s “friend” like in MySpace) you end up losing focus and offering very little value to others.

Kevin Donaldson said...

Another post about the concept of
Social Network Fatigue
, with a similar feel to this post in a number of aspects.