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Context helps create meaning, so let me give you a little bit of my context
in the hopes that it will help you find meaning in my reply.

 

I've spent the last four years devoted to the practical business side,
rather than the academic/scientific study, of online networking sites like
MySpace, LinkedIn, Ryze, Ecademy, openBC, etc. I'm coauthor of The Virtual
Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online, the first book to look at
these sites - at social software in general - from the standpoint of the
individual businessperson and how they can use it to grow their business and
advance their career.  I have no academic background in this topic
whatsoever, but I have logged thousands of hours in these sites and
conducted hundreds of interviews.

 

I'm going to take a big risk and go way out on a limb with some answers that
I know may not be popular in this group, but I give them in the hope of
building greater understanding between academics/researchers and business
practitioners.

 

Moses wrote:

> Why do people around business tend to  identify social networks with

> gimmicks like MySpace? What do they see that sociologists cannot
understand?

 

Quick answer - 100 million profiles and non-stop news headlines.  It's
simply more visible.

 

The longer answer, and I think more important for researchers to understand
is this:

 

Ironically, SNA is rather "top-down" - it's done from the perspective of an
invisible 3rd-party observer.  Who is SNA most useful to?  The managers -
the decision-makers at the top (ironic again - there is no "top" of a
network) who are hoping to get some kind of insight into how people relate
within their organization. From the perspective of the individual
salesperson, though, or a marketing communications specialist, what
relevance does it have to help them get their daily job done more
effectively?

 

Or what about all the millions of people who don't work in large
organizations?  3/4 of the businesses in the U.S. don't have a payroll -
they're sole proprietors or small, owner-run companies.  99.7 percent of all
employer firms are "small" as defined by the SBA, and employ half of all
private sector employees.  What does SNA mean for these people?

 

Small business owners and revenue-generating employees in larger businesses
want practical solutions, not theory.  They also tend to relate better to
stories and best practices than to high-level analysis and statistics -
concrete over abstract.  The typical business owner would rather read half a
dozen stories of how other business owners have effectively marketed their
business in MySpace, LinkedIn and Ryze than a study of how to identify
thought leaders in MySpace via SNA.

 

There are inherit limitations to being an independent observer.  There are
some things that you can learn by doing that you can never learn by
watching.  You can learn to do things intuitively as a participant that
takes an independent observer a huge amount of time and analysis, only to
arrive at much the same result.

 

For example, let's take the matter of identifying thought leaders in a large
community, such as MySpace.  If you can get the data from MySpace, you could
throw a very large dataset of permanent links and communication events
(private messages, reading a profile, posting a bulletin, etc.), and after
some heavy number-crunching, you could create a map of the relationships and
identify the thought leaders and the supernodes.

 

Or, you could go to an experienced participant who knows what they're doing
and say, "Identify all the thought leaders and supernodes on such-and-such a
topic," and within a couple of hours, they could have you a pretty good
first swipe at it, and within a day, probably have much the same list of
people the SNA produced.

 

Perfect?  No.  Good enough?  Probably.  And when it comes to stuff like
this, "good enough" is good enough.  If you're trying to identify 100
influential MySpace members to contact directly, you don't need SNA - you
need one actual participant who knows what they're doing.  I don't mean to
denigrate or devalue SNA in any way - I'm just saying that there are other
approaches.

 

(Valdis - I'd especially like to hear your perspective on the above)

 

Nick wrote:

> What sickens me is that the focus of these business-perspective

> articles is how these sites are a new way to make money by

> profiling users or using network effects. This perspective can

> never work! It is precisely this perspective of exploitation

> that people naturally resist, and the very same network effects

> will quickly clamp down on any such perceived threat.

 

Generally, I would be inclined to agree, but reality hasn't born that out.
There were predictions of a mass exodus from MySpace when NewsCorp took over
- didn't happen. There were again predictions of a mass exodus when MySpace
removed a bunch of profiles for inappropriate content in order to appease
advertisers - didn't happen.  So long as people continue to receive value
from their participation, they tend to tolerate a fair amount of
exploitation.

 

Anyway, though, I think the answer is simple. there will always be an
inherent distrust of "outsiders" within these networks.  That's why any kind
of independent-observer perspective or approach to dealing with the network
is going to be limited.  Only a true, genuine participant can really
leverage the network.  This is what the large organizations looking at these
sites seem to have a really hard time getting.

 

People can only have a very limited interaction with, say, "iPod" or "Snakes
on a Plane".  But put the Product Manager for iPod on there, or the stunt
coordinator for the movie, and you now have the potential for authentic
interaction.

 

I think the rift between academic/scientific researchers and business
practitioners comes when we start talking about what's "legitimate" or
"valid". I see a variety of approaches as potentially equally "valid" - the
question is what is the outcome you're after.  If what you're after is a
strategic-level understanding of communication and relationships within your
organization, then SNA is appropriate and probably the best solution.  If
what you're after is identifying thought leaders in an online community, or
figuring out how to get your developers communicating with your field
consultants, then SNA may help, but it may not be the most efficient way to
get answers, and it may not give a complete picture.  It may not even be
necessary at all (I have a couple of personal stories about this if anyone's
interested).

 

I don't presume to speak for all businesspeople, but I hope this helps
broaden your perspective and deepen your understanding.

Scott Allen
512-215-9720
LinkedIntelligence.com <http://www.linkedintelligence.com/> 
TheVirtualHandshake.com <http://www.thevirtualhandshake.com/> 
About.com Entrepreneurs Guide <http://entrepreneurs.about.com/> 
Sales  <http://members.work.com/Scott-Allen> & Marketing Community Leader,
Work.com
 <http://www.fastcompany.com/resources/networking/columns.html> The Virtual
Handshake column at FastCompany.com

 


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