Home Deconstructing the Business Social Network

Deconstructing the Business Social Network

I am the wrong age for Facebook or MySpace. But I happen to have a relative who is in the LA music scene, who gave me a tour from his perspective – and now I totally get it. A few decades ago that is where I would have hung out.

I am not looking for a social network. I cannot imagine choosing one single place as my only online hangout and I certainly don’t want the hassle of managing my identity and my relationships on multiple sites. However I am interested in how different tools give different pieces of the social networking puzzle; and what ties them together.

When I wrote about LinkedIn compared to Facebook, some Facebook enthusiasts pointed out that messaging within Facebook is better. I think that is true, but I don’t want to use messaging that is controlled by a site – and I think that is true for most people who grew up with the Internet before social networks evolved. It may be nothing more than habit, but habit matters a lot for adoption.

The reason that LinkedIn is so interesting is that it is the missing piece of the puzzle. We already have two good basic pieces:

1. Blogging tool – WordPress, Typepad or Blogger.

2. Start page – Pageflakes, Netvibes or MyYahoo.

My online social/business network happens to be WordPress + PageFlakes. PageFlakes is where I consume content and WordPress is where I create it. If you are interested in what I write you RSS it into your start page. It’s not hard.

Sure, that could be MyYahoo, Netvibes or iGoogle instead of PageFlakes; and Typepad or Blogger instead of WordPress. To update an old phrase: “you loan your attention you takes your choice.” Choice really is the point. Unlike the all-in-one stereo system of Facebook, I get to mix and match my speakers and woofers as I want (yes I know, that analogy dates me). Switch PageFlakes for Netvibes? Sure, if it is different enough.

What’s interesting is the ecosystem of vendors that work in the background to make my PageFlakes and WordPress experiences better. Actually PageFlakes is really just a glorified layout tool and the clever stuff is in the apps that feed into my panes. There is still a lot of room for innovation in this area, around intelligent filtering. I think of RSS like SQL. It is a standard and that enables innovation and value creation. It is not ideal, but no standard is ideal.

I am still a WordPress newbie, so my use of widgets is limited. But I vow to catch up with Fred Wilson one day and have all those widgets on my Blog (although load time is getting to a bit of an issue!) This is an area with lots of innovation that has the potential to a) make my Blog more interesting and b) make some money from my Blog (maybe just paying for my Starbucks habit).

In that sense, PageFlakes and WordPress genuinely are platforms, with RSS as the enabling standard.

What’s interesting about LinkedIn in this context is:

1. I don’t have a choice. It is the only site that has my business network. That makes me think I would much prefer to be an investor in LinkedIn than an investor in PageFlakes or WordPress. They have a network effect and that means big bucks.

2. Most of my network does not have a Blog. So I cannot just link to their Blog via RSS. My guess is less than 10% of my contacts have a Blog. More are creating Blogs all the time, but the % is way below the threshold where getting an RSS feed from my network is worthwhile. Go into the business mainstream and that sub 10% with a Blog is still true. As Alex Iskold has pointed out, Blogging is in a digestion phase – so we cannot just assume that everybody will get a Blog.

However if LinkedIn tries to become/remain a destination site, I think they will fail. I don’t want to check LinkedIn regularly, I’ve got too many other things to do. So they won’t get the busy biz guy that’s too old for Facebook. Nor will they get the Facebook/MySpace crowd who will see it is rather bland and uninteresting as a social hangout.

The only people who will hangout regularly are people trying to sell you something; which will rapidly become self defeating.

However a feed of what is happening in my business network, feeding into one pane on PageFlakes? Now that is interesting. Particularly because although nearly 80% of my business network is on LinkedIn, most of them are not active Bloggers. However if LinkedIn gave everybody a simple interface that was more MicroBlog like, and that worked well with Blackberry and other wireless devices, people could easily send out “personal press releases” about a new job, deal, project or whatever.

As long as I had good filtering tools so I can tune how much I get by person, by periodicity and by type of news; that is a very useful service in the business world.

None of this requires any single new thing that we all have to buy into – and no complicated new identity standard. It will just build on APIs and RSS and existing services.

If LinkedIn becomes a feed and not a destination, the monetization question is the issue. It certainly cannot be CPM, but that’s a weak model anyway. It could be subscription fees. If they really have all my network, would it be worth $10 per month to get that feed? From an ROI point of view that’s pretty easy. If I had no alternative, I would pay.

Alternatively they could move into success-based transaction fees. That would be harder to pull off, but could be a multi-billion dollar revenue play.

If LinkedIn misses this, tries too hard to be a destination site and does not open up the API in a smart way, some start-up will find a way to beat them by leveraging email systems. We are still in the early stages of this game.

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