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Kent’s Friday video is a hilarious reminder of how fickle users can be, ignoring MySpace for Facebook, ridiculing Friendster, and abandoning virtual Second Life for the real world, until the real world becomes, well, “lame.”

It also reminds us that following the horse race between social networks, not unlike the media’s obsession with following the horse race in political elections, seems to miss the point of why people use social networking sites.  Being popular tells you little about why your site is being used; it merely tells you that you’re popular.  Stoking the popularity furnace creates the same irrational exuberance that leads people to simply follow the crowd, whether that crowd is leading you to some social benefit or a financial black hole.  Hindsight is always 20-20.

I’ve seen enough presentations by consultants on the benefits of social media for libraries and publishers, and they almost always follow the same theme — look at what your competitors are doing; start behaving like them or go extinct!  This is horse-race rhetoric and about as beneficial as being advised on buying subprime mortgages.  It feeds upon the same irrational exuberance that leads people to needlessly waste time and resources and drains an institution’s ability to respond to real and urgent needs.

Instead of viewing social networking sites in terms of who is winning the popularity game, we should attempt to understand what function they are providing to their users.  I know this sounds rather obvious, but let me explain.

A “friend” in the physical world means very different things than a friend in the online world where one can befriend a band, a product, or a political ideology.  The act of linking to these friends functions as identity formation (i.e., look how cool I am because these are the people, bands, products, and beliefs I ascribe to), and nothing else.  Viewed cynically, it is a great way for a commercial venture like MySpace or Facebook to identify potential customers and sell advertisement.

The study of social networks is rooted in sociology and has attempted to understand how information travels through networks, why people trust each other, and how these relationships can be used to leverage mutual benefits.  No one studied Town Hall meetings because they were cool, or ranked Town Hall meetings based on their size (as if size mattered).

Similarly, we should focus more on why people use social media, and equally as important, why they stop using it.  Few of us have the time and resources to chase the fickle user around the Internet.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.com/


2 Thoughts on "The Social Networks Horse Race"

Speaking as one of those fickle users, I find myself agreeing with Howard. I may have a “presence” on a dozen or more social networks, but I can count on the fingers of a single hand the ones that actually engage me to the point of frequent interaction with other users and daily visits.

That said, I don’t think publishers should remove themselves from social networks on the claim that they have too little time or too few resources to participate. Isn’t it true that we need to be immediately accessible to our clients and partners? These networks are one of the ways in which we can do that.

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