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Real Social

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Tim Bray explains how social networks really work:

John is the guy who’s building the new room for the new kid; he was recommended by Diane, who’s a friend who used to work with Lauren ... We got Albin to do the electrical work, I met Albin through my old friend Glen, I rent an office from Glen ... and he brought Albin in to run the wires for the DSL at the store/office. Turns out John is going to be doing some work for Tracy three doors down, whose boy and ours play all the time and sleep over and so on; but Tracy met John not through us but via Nick’s mom. ... John and Albin hit it off and they’ll probably call each other in for carpentry and electrical work in future. Why do we need computers to help us with this?

The promise behind social networks is to make these types of connections easier to find. Right now, the connections are largely serendipitous. Tim or his wife probably mentioned in passing to Diane that they wanted to build an addition and Diane mentioned how she knew this great contractor. If the Bray’s hadn’t had this happy conversation, then they’d never have found John and John wouldn’t have met Albin.

In January my fence blew down and I needed it replaced. In the view of social networking, the ideal situation would have been for me to check my network online to find someone that knew a contractor. The problem is, very few of my real-life network can be found on my online network. Sure I could invite them all, but spamming my friends to get them to join a service so that I may benefit isn’t my style.

The people that are linked to me through online social networking tools are in most cases not local to me, and in many cases, not all that well known to me. At Barcamp this past weekend I met Enoch Choi. We talked for an hour or so and I’ll likely continue having conversations with him. But if I needed a recommendation for a plumber, it would be silly for me to ask him.

A while back I wrote:

Social software sites make it easier for people to make connections with others. This reduction in friction encourages people to make connections to everyone—even those to which they have only a tenuous relationship.

One of these "sort-of" relationships is a useful link in the social network chain. The strength of a connection determines what sort of recommendation I’ll ask someone for. I don’t really know my next-door neighbor, but I’ll ask him for the name of his pool guy. I wouldn’t ask him to get me a meeting with the CEO of the company he works for.

Social networking could be useful in everyday situations. It could help make connections that I might not otherwise find. It could help me discover that my son’s baseball coach has a brother who pours concrete. But in order to do that, my everyday contacts need to already be available in the online tools. And the tools need ways of helping define the strengths of those connections.

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