11 May, 2011

P2P Social Networks versus Group Management Software


I've been in social software for 9 years – almost before the term was started. I enjoy contributing to the alumni network for Judge Business School at Cambridge University. Naturally, we have our own online network, called the 'Common Room'.

We've run into a problem – recent graduates ie those that did their MBA in 2004/5 onwards are glued to Facebook in order to interact with others – to the detriment of any other social software.

This article intends to explain why the Common Room (and other Group Management software) will continue to remain much more useful and relevant than Facebook.

Group Management at the core of the network

There are two ways to manage a network:

  • At the edge: means that each individual manages their connections and the level of information that they share by themselves. 
  • At the centre: means that management is done centrally, by an appointed person(s) of the organisation.
Solutions between these two extreme have to make compromises between these two models which introduces technical and user complexity, ultimately confusing the end user which make participation harder.

Facebook Groups falls between these stools.

Facebook is good / bad at ….

Facebook is great – brilliant for connecting for individuals to connect with others – sharing ongoing updates, as well having the one place to house your profile information. It's perfect for students to join up together online (err, that was what is was invented for, right?!?).

Btw, many people outside the US don't realise that a ‘Facebook’ on American university campuses was the ubiquitous book that was handed out to all first year students so that they could quickly get to know each other. It was a book of faces and names possibly with some other information eg home town, birthday, interests, sports. Of course, the first thing that everyone does is flip through it looking for hot guys / girls – I did it myself at my American high school in New England.

Unfortunately, the elegant P2P social network model breaks down when it crosses from being a network of peers to being a group with a common interest. Certainly a group with a common interest can be set up on P2P networks. It fails because every individual has to join that group. Given that setting up the group is free and pretty painless, then lots of similar groups proliferate.

Remember Metcalf's Law? The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. The value of a large network is disproportionately more value than lots of little, ill-formed networks.

For the Alumni of Cambridge Judge Business School, there are Facebook groups for each year, country, location… except that it is inconsistent: many countries are missing, locations are based on the passion of the group leader and the naming convention is (inevitably) inconsistent.

Entrance to the community is done via invitation or more practically by request. The group manager has to undertake the verification of membership. Do they have the time to do that? I doubt it.

What happens when the group leader leaves / resigns / becomes too busy? Unfortunately, there’s no way for someone else to take over the management of the group.

Facebook and Privacy

Facebook have really, REALLY struggled with the issue of privacy. The user generated content is incredibly engaging, but what attracts new users is the mass of information on their friends – the more is disclosed, the more engaging that content becomes. Squirrelling information away is fundamentally destructive to Facebook.

Facebook blundered around the privacy issue. Facebook Beacon was an early version of Facebook Connect which enable certain activities on partner sites to publish activity on third party site to the user's News Feed. The colossal error of judgement was that it was default opt-in, rather than default opt-out. Worse, at launch, there was no opt-out.

Step forward Group Management functionality (again)

I was involved in Social Software before the term existed (it was community software back in the late 90s) so it is good to see its relevance today.

Group Management requires the appointment of someone to act a gatekeeper and referee (if required) to the community. This is required when everyone doesn’t know everyone, but would like to connect across a large network.

The Gatekeeper is nominated by the community to control entrance and exit. Once the community trusts the gatekeeper to do a good job then then the community is likely to be much more virulent and healthy because each member has been vetted and is likely to more trustworthy.

The Gatekeeper acts as a referee. It represents the (independent) court of appeal for any behaviour that is deemed to be detrimental to the community (eg spam or over communication) or a disagreement within the community.

Conclusion

Facebook has its uses, but not really in professional membership organisations. Bring on Group Management functionality please!

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