Thursday, February 2, 2012

Social network definition revisited

Recently I started to think about the question: what makes social network work?  What is sitting at the core of social network that makes it different from other types of networks?  What is the basis of all social networks?

I started to wonder about this question because I think knowing the core essence will help me understand where the focus will be to continue its adoption and predict what will come out of social network as the next trend.

It is not an easy question, and certainly an open ended one.  Many people have different reasons for getting on to social network.  Some get on to get plugged in with friends around them, some start social network to find interesting people to follow.  There are others who join to get good eatery recommendation from friends, and yet others who join to use the network as viral media channel.

But if you look at what at the core that makes social network different from other services, it's based on people's relationship.  To be more precise, it's based on member's relationship with one another.  One member's relationship to another member is represented by a connection in the social network.  And this connection is different from any other network connection that existed before (such as peer-to-peer network connection) in one notable way.  It is based on personal relationship.

It may seem that this is obvious, but if you contrast social network with other network types that existed before, you'll see the remarkable differences from earlier networks.  Earlier networks mostly refer to network of computers.  One device is connected to another by communication link, and the routing decision was made purely based on network bandwidth and latency.  In other words, closer computers from network topology  perspective are preferred over farther away computers when establishing communication route.

If you look at social network, it is not the case.  Connections in social network are purely based on personal relationship.  You may be able to argue that people who have mutual trust of each other are likely to have physical proximity where they get to build mutual trust with each other then geographically distributed.  But the point is that the social connection exists as long as the relationship is maintained regardless how close or far apart they are.  In some instances this relationship is one-sided (think of asymmetric Twitter follower model where followers are trusting the one they are following without mutual relationship).

Therefore, social network is built on personal relationship which in turn is built on personal trust.  Then the question for future social network will be how to help people build and maintain personal relationship.

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