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Are You Building Community or Am I Just Painting Your Fence?

I succumbed to the hype and joined Quora last week. Two weeks before that I joined Academia which is a social networking site for academics. Friday night I joined Eegoes because they promised to help me organize my rapidly-expanding universe of social networking sites. I had a great time building profiles, looking for people to follow (like Stephen Hawkings!), and registering my interests (game theory and the Three Stooges). I post daily on FaceBook, participate in LinkedIn discussions, and haunt the GovLoop site at least an hour a day. Add in my Twitter activity and I put in a significant amount of time and effort creating content and interacting with others.

It was from Twitter that I came upon this posting from Derek Christensen that compared Google’s latest business efforts to Tom Sawyer’s scam to get his friends to whitewash a fence for him. As Mr. Christensen points out, the key is the packaging of the onerous task into an activity that people are fighting to do. You can go swimming anytime but it’s not everyday you can WHITEWASH A FENCE! Or answer questions from other people! Or share your academic papers with other academics so easily! Thanks to my efforts and the efforts of others we are helping to make Mark Zuckerberg a very, very rich man by contributing thousands of free hours of labor to make the FaceBook community valuable to other users who in turn contribute even more free labor.

I helped make FourSquare a major success and all I got was this lousy badge?

No, I am not that cynical. I benefit a great deal from the social networks. FaceBook allows me to keep in touch with friends on a daily basis when before I would occasionally call or only see them at special occasions. Twitter is a great resource for the newest stuff in my fields and GovLoop has given me a great platform to showcase my work and to connect with a great group of professionals. My Social Return on Investment (ROI) has been much better in the last three years than at any other time in my career. I am certain others have seen similar benefits from being on social networks.

But nothing fails quite like success. 2011 looks to be the year of the social networks as more organizations and entrepreneurs compete to build the next FaceBook/FourSquare/Twitter/LinkedIn. Look at the recent hype surrounding Quora. This will be a common event all through 2011 because the barriers to entry are so low and the potential payoff is so high. In a nice weekend afternoon and with a premium account on Ning I can build a competitor to GovLoop (BillLoop?). A three-day weekend, a six-pack of Five-Hour Energy, and a hosted Drupal account and I have a very sophisticated social networking site. Just add a critical mass of members and I will soon have a movie made about me.

Why does this matter to Gov 2.0? Because 2011 will also be the year of engagement fatigue. It will seem like everyone from your local grocery to your alma mater wants you to put a profile on their site and give daily status updates while constantly asking you your opinion on a quick survey. According to neuroscience findings, 150 is the maximum number of social contacts our brains can comfortably handle. Many people have quickly surpassed that number in their online social networking contact lists. By necessity people will start scaling back so expect to see major pruning as people determine just who are the most important members of their personal networks. And woe to the social network where people have just discovered they were tricked into helping the network owner into building a valuable body of knowledge that only the network owner will profit from.

So, how do you tell if you are benefiting from a social network or just whitewashing someone’s virtual fence?

  1. What’s In It For Me? Put a dollar value on your time and treat your social networking time like an investment. Is being part of this network going to benefit me by keeping in touch with friends and family? Is it going to help me build a reputation in my field? Can I make a list of at least five ways I personally benefit from being a member?
  2. How Much Can I Personalize the Experience? Can I form subgroups of interests? Can I specify who I will interact with? Can I determine the level of interaction I want and not be harassed to interact more?
  3. Do I Have Ownership of My Work? At various times, FaceBook and Second Life tried to alter the user agreement so that they and not the user owned the work that was contributed to their respective sites. If you are in a social networking site that tries to claim ownership of your original work and/or does not allow easy exporting of your work, then you don’t want to be a member of that site.
  4. Is the Site Owned by the Community? As the site grows has the social network owner ceded more and more of decision making to the community? Is there a diversity of opinion on the site? Is it easy to question and affect decisions about community operations? Is there a formal council of members that rotates membership on a regular basis?

In 2011, I expect to see the rise of many copycat social networking sites as more people try to gain in this emerging market. There will be many beneficial sites but I fear a greater number of social-fencepainting sites will also arise. The challenge for Gov 2.0 citizen engagement efforts is to first be heard above the din of all the new sites and then to survive the coming backlash from the collapse of many of these new social networking sites. The American people are great advocates for collective action but only if the benefits are clearly visible and evenly shared.

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Profile Photo Martha Garvey

Bill, so good. So good.

I am also curious, because social networks aren’t exactly new, if anyone’s doing research on the life and death of social networks. Because I think by now, we should have some metrics dealing with this.

I have been taking part in something that can be called a social network since 1995. I am sure there are folks on Govloop who can beat that–I would have taken part more in listservs in the 80s if I wasn’t freaked out by them. And I was, partly because I was female. Honest. Remember when there were a lot fewer ladies on the Internet? Yeah. That wasn’t always fun.

Since 1995, I have belonged to at least one social network that went belly up, belong to another that is struggling, and have left one because I just didn’t have the bandwidth, even though it helped me professionally. And none of those is Friendster, MySpace, SixDegrees, Plaxo, Match.com, Dogster, Catster…all of which have also taken up my “cognitive surplus” as well. And that doesn’t even count the networks I have explored to do my job better.

What I think I’ve learned is that as social networks explode, I am probably going to be relying more and more on my friends to guide me to what works, what’s good. Am I an engaged citizen? You bet.

But I will bet you I never ask my friends “Hey, what’s a good citizen engagement site?”

Profile Photo Bill Brantley

@Peter – Thank you!

@Stephen – Only five? I need to invite you to CityVille.

@Martha – Well there is social network analysis but the recent phenomena of online social networks seems to defy conventional SNA research. You might find this presentation interesting because it demonstrates the difference between real-life social networks and online social networks – http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2 I think you will find why you depend on your friends for advice and why no one is sharing their favorite civil-engagement sites like FarmVille invites.

Profile Photo Martha Garvey

@Bill–thanks. Please take this in the spirit that it is given–I know you didn’t write the presentation. I have seen this presentation before, and find it useful. I also wish they had chosen something other than “pictures from a gay bar” as the objectionable content example.