You are who you know: Part 2

Social software pioneers have the Internet biz buzzing again. But their new networks are even more valuable as booster shots for human connection.


Andrew Leonard
June 17, 2004 2:34AM (UTC)

In May 2003, Stanford graduate students Lada Adamic, Orkut Buyukkokten and Eytan Adar published a study in the online journal First Monday discussing research they had conducted about an online gathering place for Stanford students called Club Nexus.

"The electronic nature of online community participation presents an opportunity to study human behavior and interactions with great detail and on an unprecedented scale. Traditional methods of gathering information on social networks require researchers to conduct time-consuming and expensive mail, phone, or live surveys. This limits the size of the data sets and requires additional time and effort on the part of the participants. When studying an online community, our ability to learn more about the social network is simply a side effect of users transmitting information digitally."

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What kinds of things could they learn?

"The richness of the profiles allowed us to characterize social ties and identify what factors influence friendships ... The richness of this information can be used to model dynamics such as the spread of ideas on a network or the way that people can find each other through their contacts."

After leaving Stanford, Buyukkokten, one of the designers of Club Nexus, took a job as a user interface designer at Google, where he designed and built Orkut "in his spare time." (Google programmers are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on their own side projects.)

Google's rebuffed attempt to purchase Friendster casts some doubt as to whether Buyokkokten's venture into social networking design was a hobby as purely innocent as he maintained in a phone interview. Equally revealing were Google CEO Eric Schmidt's comments in April that Orkut and Google's search capabilities would probably be combined. In any case, the advent of the eponymous Orkut spawned a minor Net frenzy throughout the spring of 2004. For those who found Friendster too juvenile, Tribe.net too Burning Man counterculturish, and LinkedIn and Ryze too buttoned-down, Orkut exerted an irresistible attraction.

Its position as part of the Google empire conferred additional cachet on Orkut. As rumors of Google's upcoming public offering began to circulate, a rosy glow suffused the entire enterprise. The Internet was coming back! Silicon Valley was safe for capitalism again! And not only was Orkut comforting for grown-ups, but it was just so easy -- ridiculously easy. Within weeks of its launch, it was, as technology writer Annalee Newitz dubbed it, "the crack cocaine of social networking." What Google had done for search, it was now going to do for an even more essential human activity -- being social.

But you can't gather too many Net geeks in one place without a backlash sure to brew. No sooner had Orkut begun to take off than outraged users were sputtering over the wording of Orkut's Terms of Service, which appeared to give Orkut ownership for all time throughout the known and unknown universe of all intellectual property associated with an Orkut profile. The ensuing debut of Gmail, which for some raised the terrifying specter of e-mail content scanned so as to better allow targeted advertising, was followed by the revelation that Google was using the same software cookie to register user identities on all its services.

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The alarm went out, across the blogs and mailing lists of the Net: A new 8,000-pound terror of privacy invasion had been born. Call it Googlezilla.

At first glance, Googlezilla is scary indeed. Google appears better positioned than any other Net service to successfully amass a truly staggering database of user behavior. If we care about privacy, then we should be leery, right?

But as I watch my Orkut network jump by 10 percent a week without my lifting a hand, and listen to the clamor of people begging for a test Gmail account, I wonder just who is being frightened. Seven million people have accounts on Friendster, and 200,000 new users are reportedly joining every week. Two million are registered to MySpace. A whopping 16 million are supposed to have registered on Tickle for a chance to take a personality test. Judging by the documentary record, privacy doesn't seem all that important a value for today's online masses.

The growth of social networking brings to light a contradiction inherent in the structure of the Internet. The geeks who built the Net tend to be among the more privacy-obsessed individuals in our society. But the network they have constructed is inexorably abolishing every last scrap of privacy that we may have once enjoyed. And yet the masses of people who use that network do not appear to share the values of the people who designed it.

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Some observers of new media, like NYU professor Clay Shirky and social software analyst Danah Boyd, speculate that there is a generation gap at issue -- that we are watching the first generation to have been weaned on the Net grow up, and they simply accept, as one Friendster über-user told me, that their lives are open books.

"We're dealing with a generation of people -- the first generation of people -- for whom the Internet is normal," Shirky says.

Their attitudes may change as they grow older and suddenly become alarmed at the thought of their children viewing their let-it-all-hang-out Friendster profiles. A privacy backlash may still be imminent. There may also be, in the future, technological innovations that allow us exquisite control of what information we reveal to others and what we keep private. But at the moment, the point is moot. Most people, by their behavior, are stating that they don't care if all their online activities can be collated in a dossier somewhere on a server in Silicon Valley. If joining a social network leads to one hot date then it's all worth it.

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The payoff of social networking doesn't even have to be about lust. The lure can be much more pragmatic. Tribe.net already offers targeted classifieds. What if it also offered freedom from spam?

If social networking sites are the gated communities of the Web, doesn't it make sense that when you walk through those gates and submit to their rules, you might gain the security and peace of a controlled environment?

Virtually all social networking systems offer, or plan to offer, some way of rating your friends or acquaintances. On one level this is ludicrous. If breaking the concept of friendship down into binary terms is absurd, so is breaking it into seven categories, or even 70. Such classifications may not be, as author David Weinberger has suggested, an actual "act of violence" against the concept of friendship, but they strike many people as artificial and repugnant. Pondering whether someone is merely an acquaintance, or an actual friend (if not a close friend), is not a task on which I wish to waste any of the precious remaining seconds of my life.

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But such ratings may be necessary if social networks are to become "reputation systems" -- a kind of holy grail for human-relationship hackers. If I get e-mail from a stranger, but my social network rates that stranger high (because a friend of my friend rates him a close friend, for example), then I'll be more likely to let the mail through. But if somewhere along the way the sender had been judged unreliable, then the mail would be stopped.

Jennifer Golbeck is a researcher at the University of Maryland working on exactly such a reputation system -- she calls her application-in-progress TrustMail. She posited a situation in which, I, as a reporter, sent her an unsolicited e-mail. She doesn't know me from Adam, but her social network does.

"If it turns out that my advisor had read an article by you that he likes, and given you good rating ... then your mail gets a high rating," Golbeck says.

As networks get larger, they get noisier, and their utility decreases. We've all experienced this as we've moved our lives onto the Internet platform. We no longer thrill to the sound of incoming e-mail, because we know that more than likely another truckload of foul-smelling junk has just been dumped in our in box. But what if the sound of e-mail coming in rang with a chime that told us it was a good e-mail? And what if we don't even need to bother to do the ratings of our friends ourselves? Can't the network take care of that by itself? Our behavior on the Net, who we send e-mail to, what communities we join, what blogs we read, all add up to a data trail that will permit reputations to be derived automatically. We don't need to do anything but be ourselves.

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Clear trends in Internet software development -- the easy merging and management of content streams via systems such as RSS aggregation, the evolution of distributed rating systems such as those employed by Slashdot, the ongoing attempt to decentralize the control of information while making it fast and easy for people and software to forge "weak ties" -- will contribute to the network's ability to determine if we are good or bad actors. This is happening all over the Net. Social software networks provide distillations of that overall evolution in tidy, user-friendly packages.

It's a classic cyberpunk construct -- humans as patterns of information, their "worth" or "value" deducible from the electronic paths they tread and the bread crumbs of data they leave behind. Yet it is hardly science fiction -- it's already becoming a fact of network-society life. So far, we're only getting our feet wet in this data pool. But we'll continue to plunge deeper.

As Bernardo Huberman, the director of the Information Dynamics Lab at Hewlett Packard Laboratories, mused to me at the end of our phone conversation, "I think we are on to something big."

Marc Pincus, the CEO and founder of Tribe.net, waves apologetically at the dog following him into his office.

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"I know, I know, it's a start-up cliché to have a dog in the office," he says.

I can only nod my head. I'm suffering an extreme dot-com flashback.

About 25 or 30 employees are quietly hunched over laptops, sitting at desks built out of sawhorses and planks. There is no receptionist, but a Koosh-ball net hangs from a file cabinet. On giant whiteboards lining one entire wall, buzzwords sprawl -- words like "community" and "personalization" and "persistent identity." Words that once blasted forth from every start-up minaret in Silicon Valley. It's as if the bust never happened.

Marc Canter has a theory that the software innovations involved in social networking software, along with a host of other advances in what is called, more generally, "social software," are directly attributable to the dot-com bust. All those brilliant but laid-off programmers were sitting around at home with nothing to do. So they started hacking.

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"We had an amazing phenomenon happen the last three years," says Canter. "Some of the best and smartest people all got laid off, and they were forced to sit at home and come up with shit on their own. [And they decided] that 'social networking' and 'social software' will be part of the infrastructure."

It's a kind of twist on the old "creative destruction" meme. Out of the demolition of the dot-com economy, the next stage of Internet evolution was born! By the spring of 2004, the excitement over social networking software wasn't just confined to the geeks and the millions of people trolling Friendster for dates. It had spread to the business community. The venture capitalists were coming out of hibernation.

"We've been getting calls every day, bottles of wine sent to our office...," James Currier, the CEO of Tickle, told me, just a few weeks before his company was gobbled up by Monster.com.

Software companies that had been doing business for as long as 10 years were suddenly reinventing themselves as "social networking companies." Kleiner Perkins invested in Friendster and Knight Ridder bought into Tribe.net. The dark ages were coming to an end; the renaissance lurked, just around that next IPO.

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Locked in a symbiotic embrace, the naysayers were back in force as well. Because what was social networking if not another play on the same old "community" trope? Friendster, Orkut, MySpace, Tribe.net -- they were all free. Where was the business model? Why would anyone pay for these services? So what if 200,000 new users were joining Friendster every week -- how many hundreds of thousands had already abandoned their Friendster accounts for some brighter, shinier gathering place?

The typical pattern of user behavior for any of these services, says Clay Shirky, can be compared to the shape of a comet: furiously hot and active and swirling at the beginning, and then gradually trailing off into the chill nothingness of dead outer space.

You know you've got a problem when even as energetic an advocate of social networking as Canter acknowledges that "everybody signs up, it's really fun, and then you've got all your friends there, and you're all dressed up and there is nothing to do."

Was social networking just the latest addition to the emperor's wardrobe? As spring moved toward summer, the bloggerati who documented every new iteration were getting bored almost as quickly as they had become excited. Very early on, they had coined an acronym that oozed with jaded disdain: YASNS, for "yet another social networking service."

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Pincus struck me as ideal person to press on the issue of business models. Tribe.net had some interesting innovations, but it did not appear to be experiencing the rapid growth of a Friendster or an Orkut. So how was it going to succeed in generating revenue? More importantly, Pincus has been through this all before. He's a serial entrepreneur, a veteran who was right in the middle of one of the biggest early waves of Internet hype.

Remember "push media"? Pincus founded Freeloader, one of the earliest of the push clients -- a program that would download Web sites for you while you weren't at your computer. Pincus and his co-partner managed to do quite well out of Freeloader, selling it to another company and cashing out, while the technology itself went nowhere. Not long after, "push media" became an Internet laughingstock.

Pincus nodded sagely when I asked him what made social networking different from push media. But it was difficult to tell whether he was conceding that the question was valid, or had already been asked the question too many times. And then he executed a classic side step.

"The business you're in is not social networking," says Pincus. "You need to apply that innovation and the consumer interest in it to something that's a real business ... Social networking is something that we found along the way and it was a means to an end."

Tickle's Currier could have been reading from the same playbook when I talked to him a few weeks later. "The excitement around social networking is not about social networking ... [The term] is a proxy for the excitement, for the re-excitement, about how Internet technology is changing consumers' lives."

And then Currier made a simple point: The Internet, he said, gets only 2 percent of the total national ad budget, but it already swallows up 16 percent of media viewing time. And after a few bad years set off by the dot-com bust, Internet ad sales were already growing again, quickly, with lots of obvious room to expand.

So why worry so much about whether there is a revenue model in "social networking"? After the bust, while dot-com naysayers were so busy congratulating themselves on their prescience, millions of people continued to spend more and more time online. It's not that complicated. The classic revenue model for media services has been in aggregating eyeballs for advertisers. With all those millions of people flocking to sites that, one way or another, offer social networking, somebody will figure out how to turn a profit. It may not be Tribe, it may not be Tickle, it may not even be Friendster that ends up keeping millions of people hanging around. But someone surely will.

One Saturday morning early this year, I checked my e-mail and discovered two messages from friends inviting me to join Orkut, and one asking me to check out a network called LinkedIn. A few days earlier, another friend had instant-messaged me, begging me to be his "Friendster." One friend, recommending Orkut, even went so far as to tell me, "It's really cool, really viral."

As a battle-scarred veteran of the dot-com boom and bust, I reach for the Delete key when I hear the word "viral." The last thing I want is another infection.

I was guilty of the been-there done-that syndrome. At Salon, we had run a story on sixdegrees, the first explicit social networking site, way back in 1998, and followed up with a story about Ryze in late 2002. When the pitches poured in last year from freelancers eager to wax lyrical about Friendster, I brushed them off. What was there possibly left to say? As Shirky notes, "Online social networks go all the way back to the Plato BBS 40 years ago!" You mean to tell me that people are gathering together online in affinity groups, making friends and creating personal networks?! My God -- it's just like Usenet in 1988, or the Well in 1993! Stop the presses.

But like most other people I crave human connection. And as a chronicler of geeks and a geek myself, I also still hang on to the hope that digital networks and computers can bring people closer together, even though I am weary of a life in which most waking hours are spent in front of a monitor screen. I also well recall the days when I first logged on, in 1993. My friends and relatives ridiculed me for disappearing from the world into the modem. But as a full-time freelancer with a baby at home, I found the opposite was true. The Internet introduced me to a new life, a new social world, and many, many friends and colleagues who are still a part of my life. Who was to say new, improved software tools couldn't continue such good works? Plus, I needed a date.

So I joined Friendster, Orkut, LinkedIn, Tickle and Tribe.Net. I spent many a late-night hour tweaking profile information. What to leave in, what to leave out? How honest a representation do I want to make of myself to the world? Do prospective dates really need to know about my split-custody situation, or how much NBA I watch on television, before they've even met me?

I soon found myself behaving in different ways on different networks. On Friendster, I looked for people to date. On Tribe.net, I joined tribes and participated in discussions. On LinkedIn, a business-oriented service, I didn't do much of anything at all. On Orkut, I went friend-crazy. Orkut was where "my" people were hanging out, the geeks and techies and online journalists. I started slowly, inviting into my network only people I was pretty close to, but soon my diffidence dropped.

Flipping through profiles, I would see someone I had worked with briefly 15 years ago. Point. Click. Part of my network. Likewise, a writer I had edited once, or someone I had met at someone else's party. And as I started reporting this story, I began asking some of my interview subjects to join my network. I was interested in seeing what constellation would be created. What was the map of my social structure? If the network theorists were correct, and the network was some kind of key to my constructed personal identity, then what would I learn about myself from my evolving social networks?

There were some early rewards. I struck up a conversation with a guy on Friendster that I had met once at an old girlfriend's party, and ended up scoring a bunch of cool new CD mixes. I reconnected with people I had lost touch with for years. Someone who had been a source for a score of articles over the years morphed into a friend. I even went on a couple of dates.

I can see the future, in theory. I can easily see myself with a MyGoogle page, where my blog, my search, my network and my e-mail are all centralized. I can see that space as not just a static HTML representation of my interests but as the dynamic center of a set of interlocking services. Whether this is the "digital lifestyle aggregator" that Marc Canter likes to talk about, I'm not sure, but I see the potential. After so many years of writing about geeky things, I am not immune to the siren call of software -- I'd like to believe that a killer application can be a human relations boon, that clever code can circumvent social awkwardness.

But friendship is hard. Over the past several months, as I've gotten caught up in work, or the NBA playoffs, or parenting, or other distractions, my social networks just sit there. Nothing happens. Occasionally, someone asks me to be part of their Orkut network, but after I click my acceptance, I never hear from them again. I did get hit on by a couple of Filipinas who appeared to be trolling Friendster for green card husbands, but other than that, my networks remained static if I didn't exert myself to reach out to the people on them.

There are no truly easy short cuts to real human connection. No matter how clever the programming, one still has to reach out, to brave rejection or chance ridicule. Maybe it's best, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, to ask not what social networking can do for you, but what you can do with social networking.

We do need all the help we can get. If there isn't a short cut, is it possible that at least some obstacles have been removed from the road? It's easier to send an e-mail than to cold-call someone, and it's easier to look someone up on a social network than approach them in a bar.

The geeks are excited about social networking because they never give up believing that they can apply their favorite tool, an algorithm, to the processes of human nature. The VCs are excited because they see so many eyeballs flowing to these sites, and if just one site turns out to be a Google, or a Yahoo, or an Amazon, or an eBay, somebody is going to get filthy rich. Everyone interested in studying human behavior is excited -- never has so much up-close-and-personal data been so accessible. The masses are excited because, well, hell, their hormones are pumping and there are a lot of pretty pictures out there.

But we're also all desperate, amid our excitement. Being cogs in the network society is no pleasure cruise. As we go about generating our clouds of data, lines between work and play dissolve, and the oppression of never truly being at rest hovers over us. Some of the excitement about social networking is no doubt generated by our hunger for tools that will help us cope with the stresses engendered by our always-on, information-overloaded, frenetic lives. As our ties to local communities and our families have become attenuated by the pressures of modern life, and our sensibilities bludgeoned by the awful rhetoric of politics and media, don't we need reminders at every opportunity that connection with other people is a fundamental part of being alive, and anything that helps us do that, no matter how trivial, should be cherished?

Try it, it's easy. Just click.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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