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Antisocial Networking: How Small (and Valuable) Can Social Networks Get?

Antisocial networks like Snubster began as parody; a backlash against large social networks and our fatigue in managing virtual “friends” we barely know. But there are far more powerful and systemic trends leading towards true antisocial networks. The question of where social networking is heading and where it ends is important for anyone investing or venturing online. Paradoxically, the biggest and most valuable networks will be the ones that can deal effectively with the smallest things.

My previous venture builds and manages large-scale communities. There we witnessed a constant churn of community members into smaller cliques. Even though the communities are focused on very specific interests, namely individual recording artists, cliques form around every topic imaginable, most having nothing to do with music at all.

Large networks like Facebook or LinkedIn face this fragmentation on a massive scale. But even the narrowest social network is not immune. Any service that’s organized around a static activity or interest will become fragmented as its membership grows. The reason is that the very organizing bases for social networks, the foundations for their existence, are constantly changing from within.

Sociologists have a good understanding of these forces. People want to form temporary social networks for specific purposes. We don’t keep friends and loved ones as a pool of network labour. Instead, we look to weak ties – acquaintances, friends-of-a-friend, and co-workers – to help us get things done. Underlying our “antisocial” resentment towards social networks is the conflict between strong, persistent connections and the true nature of our social relationships.

Today’s social networking systems were not built to support informal, ad hoc relationships. Large lists of “friends” or “connections” are much more a scorecard for one’s networking ability than any purposeful network of weakly associated people. The role of a social networking service is in mediating connections and providing a supportive structure. But if the organizing foundations for the network are constantly shifting, how do you provide the organization to support it?

The solution adopted by the large players is to become social networking infrastructure: focus not on the individual needs of each clique, but rather allow them to define their own organization and tools. But in so doing, they are necessarily ceding their role as a social networking service for the weakly tied, task-oriented networks that represent the bulk of our needs. This gap offers considerable market opportunities for any service that can reconcile the needs of dynamic networks with the benefits of structure and organization.

I’ve argued that interest networks, as a class of semantic networks, don’t need social networks to operate effectively. The corollary to this argument is that semantic networking illustrates one possible manifestation of extremely weakly tied and dynamic social networks. But whatever services and networks emerge from antisocial networking, the winners won’t be managing lists of “friends” or specific topics. Instead, they’ll learn to organize large numbers of highly specialized, task-oriented and fluid networks that don’t hang around long enough to become awkward.