Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Social Networking and Danah Boyd

Recently Danah Boyd caused quite a stir with her article on class in the USA and how it influences teenagers in their decision about which social online network to join. Stated over-simplified, Boyd’s research points out the following trend: the richer and the better educated the teenager, the more likely he/she is to post on MySpace. On the contrary, Facebook tends to be the choice of a more downtrodden on- and offline existence.

Amid all the hoopla about Boyd’s essay (which is excellent), readers can easily lose the point and that is what do her findings mean for online social networks and can they point out where social networks are moving? This question about how to capitalize on our class thinking should be of interest to the executives running MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing and similar sites.

One increasing driving factor for online networks could be to reestablish an updated version of the classic British old boys’ network, only this time with woman members. While MySpace and Facebook provide an excellent creative outlet and network, they are essentially open to literally everyone, and that is a few too many. Locating your very own core group, that is four to six meaningful contacts that used to define our social network off-line, is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

MySpace has over 70 million users. That is the population of a decent-sized country, just between the UK’s 60 million and Germany’s 80 million. To put it into perspective, there are now so many users on MySpace that the network recently had to bar 29,000 convicted sex offenders from joining it, and that just in the USA. Granted, MySpance also hosts different interest groups but there are thousands of them. The point is that online social networks have become virtual behemoths.

On the other hand, it would not be surprising if online networks moved into the direction of the real world gentlemen’s clubs: elite and exclusive membership by invitation only. As in real life, off-line that is, professionals rely on a core group of peers for success. To maintain such an online core network across the globe, such an online “club” cannot be a free for all and will have a very limited and exclusive membership.

Picture former British Prime Minster Winston Churchill wealing and dealing with the old boys in the cigar smoked filled rooms of the Carlton Club. That, of course, is the antithesis to MySpace and Facebook. It smacks of elitism and undemocratic decision-making. At the same time, one could argue that to a certain extend, the old boy’s network in the UK served the country well.

Up until the 1930s, debates in the House of Commons were often a mere continuation of the various university club meetings. Members of Parliament had known each other from their days at Harrow and Eton, Oxford and Cambridge. And even though some university friends went different ways, joining the Conservative Party (and the Carlton Club) or the Liberal Party (and the Reform Club), they often remained friends. And that certainly helped to move things along across the party divide.

By the way, Churchill being Churchill managed to be a member of both parties and both clubs, though not at the same time. Leaving the Conservative Party in 1904, he also ceased to be a member of the Carlton Club, only to rejoin both again in 1924. Remember, those clubs were exclusive.

While political affiliation can also become a factor for online networks, we can certainly already see how class has increasingly become a trend. Class as in money, or rather how much you have.

One area is career sites. Monster is still free for candidates. TheLadders has moved on and limited job postings to those that come with annual packages of at least $100K charging both, employers and candidates. At $30 a month, or $180 a year, they are not outrageous, but they certainly keep the lid on who can join and simply figure that anyone who is looking for at least $100K a year has $30 a month in loose cash to spend.

Now think bigger. Think c-level executive, but real c-level, not the two staff operation founded by your neighbor who styles himself president and ceo. What can be better for someone in this position than being part of an informal network of peers who trust each other? As they move on from position to position, regional headquarter to corporate HQ across borders and continents, an exclusive online network can be appealing and has to be exclusive, expensive and elite to remain so.

Strategically speaking, online networks need to figure out how to approach such a market segment, how to make it attractive and exclusive to appeal to the c-levels. There won’t be a c-level member group in MySpace. But social online networks can do a Toyota and spin off a Lexus version of their online services, paid, exclusive and classy, of course.

Related links:
Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html
Social Networking and Class Warfare http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20010695/site/newsweek/page/0/
MySpace bars 29,000 sex offenders


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