Robert Cringely recently posted a column in which he compared social networking to CB radio: a currently-popular activity that is destined to crash and burn. Cringely (and follow-on commenters like Steve Hodson) have certainly identified many of the pitfalls of social networking on today’s internet: the […]

Robert Cringely recently posted a column in which he compared social networking to CB radio: a currently-popular activity that is destined to crash and burn. Cringely (and follow-on commenters like Steve Hodson) have certainly identified many of the pitfalls of social networking on today’s internet: the lack of a business model, the annoyance factor, the rapid proliferation of networks, and the one-way hype emanating from the A-listers.

I wonder, though, whether the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania might be a more reasonable analogy for social networks as they currently stand. In that era, as you’ll recall, people bid up tulip prices to an unreasonable level, on the basis that everyone else was doing this and it was a great way to make money. Of course, the market was eventually unsustainable and there was a huge crash in tulip prices when the bubble burst and traders realized that a tulip bulb was not really worth 25 times as much as a ton of butter to most people.

Looking at social networking from the inside, it seems to share a lot of “mania” characteristics. When you’re on the inside, there’s nothing more important than being a part of the current hot network and pulling in everyone else you know. For those not directly involved, though, social networks appear to be some strange activity that makes no sense. We see this tension at WWD whenever we spend too much time talking about Twitter or Facebook or Linked-In or whatever: some people give us grief in the comments for wasting time on trivia.

Social networks represent an economy, not so much of money, but of attention. Right now they’re sucking down more and more attention from people as they grow, making it harder to focus on other things. Will we reach the point where the average user pulls back and says “whoa, what was I thinking?” Could there be an “attention crash” or the bursting of an “attention bubble” that would reduce social network activity to much lower levels?

I don’t know, but judging by the way that SXSW Interactive is filling up the networks that I’m a part of at the moment, any bursting is still a ways off. The people on the inside are as deeply involved as ever, and the excitement is still there. Sometimes I just wonder what it’s feeding on.

What about you? Has social networking become an important (or overwhelming?) part of your life? Are you ready to declare social network bankruptcy and back off? Do any of your networks actually contribute to your web working life? Or is this all one big blast of irrelevance?

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  1. Why do people compare CB Radios to every thing that they think dies. CB Radios are very much alive and well. 37 million truck drivers use them daily. I am in that business. I make $300,000 per year in the business. CB RADIO IS NOT DEAD, AND SHOULD NOT BE COMPARED TO DYING THINGS. CB Radio may well outlast the internet as we know it today.

  2. Lawrence Salberg Sunday, March 9, 2008

    I think your last question sums up the real value, if any, of social networks. “Do any of your networks actually contribute to your web working life?” I might suggest taking off the “web working” and asking the same question.

    If I take off web working, I can give a small token of appreciation for Facebook, albeit a very small one. All others have done nothing for me other than waste my time and arguably the time of my “friends”.

    If I leave the web working in the question, I can give some street cred to LinkedIn, but only a little.

    In other words, it’s ‘okay’. They are worth having as long as a) I don’t have to pay for them, b) the ads aren’t obtrusive or obnoxious, and c) they one day will integrate and keep future ‘profiles’ from becoming a boring and drawn out affair. Thus, Facebook’s defiance against OpenSocial has me wondering what sort of dorkiness they are smoking over there.

    I’m still holding out that they’ll wise up, but you have to wonder about a company run by a kid who turned down a billion dollars. He may be one of those geniuses with no common sense.

    Twitter is, however, not a social network, but a group messaging tool. And a really dumb one at that. Limiting someone to 255 characters also, by nature, limits the audience of potential users. The very nature of the written word (its power and permanence) requires that more thought and effort go into producing it. Haven’t we spent 15 years trying to educate folks on those principles regarding email? And now blog comments?

    And yet, we think Twittering is going to somehow evolve (rather than devolve) people. It’s a service stuck in geeksville. Ask anyone to pay even $10/year for it and it will die tomorrow.

    Good example of what I’m talking about is Flickr. I love Flickr. I sent invites to 60 people 2 years ago. Over the course of that year, six people (10%) joined. Keep in mind these are people that have an email address and can read and write. Last year, I sent 38 invites (to the same crowd, eliminating those that I just thought were technologically hopeless from the prior year). About three more joined.

    I just resent about 19 invites this week (same crowd with a few new friends), again eliminating computer dolts. So far, one has joined.

    None of these “contacts” (as Flickr calls them) have any photos on their own accounts save for one Miami blogger I know from high school. They just joined because I said they could see pics of the family, etc, on there.

    Many of these folks are “smart” people – engineers, theologians, lawyers. But despite the supposed popularity of photo-sharing (far greater than Twitter, etc), most of them never joined. It takes less than 30 seconds to join Flickr and a number of these folks already have Yahoo email addresses.

    Am I bitter? No! But I’m a realist. There are 300 million Americans that angel investors are being told are the potential market for Web 2.0 apps. No, there are not. There is a very small segment of the population that will become a web worker of their own personal life (a la Lifehacker, etc), and even fewer that take advantage of it for making money, running a business. Do you know how many small business clients I have that just **have to have** a website, but don’t own a computer, or have a dial-up AOL email address still? About half of my clients!

    God bless them, but please don’t let Zuckerburg and Blaine tell us that their apps are poised to take over America. Hardly.

    Let’s revisit this topic in five years. Actually, let’s wait ten. It will still be us, plus some new younger kids. Anyone over 30 who ISN’T using this stuff now, probably never will be.

  3. Peter Klein Sunday, March 9, 2008

    Keith doesn’t like the comparison to CB radio. I, likewise, have to object to the comparison to tulip markets. Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (University of Chicago Press, 2007) re-examines the archival data on Dutch tulip markets and finds that they actually worked quite well, and that the “irrational” bubble reported in the standard accounts never really took place. See some comments here:


    Of course this has nothing to do with your point about social networking, but what the heck.

  4. Shakir Razak Sunday, March 9, 2008


    Only the naval-gazing geeks of the web/blogosphere would give so much credit to something that is still essentially no more than AOL.com circa 1994 (with some bells); if we have the open web and open id then what need is there for any other closed platforms?

    They are no more than social aggregators, Microsoft Passports rolled together, they have “friends”-wowwee!!, they allow TV within their services -It really is the same hype-merchants from the pre-y2k bubble working with the ignorant band-wagon jumping idiots of the mainstream/media…….

    Yours kindly,

    Shakir Razak

  5. There is no doubt there is a lot of hype. Put that side though and there is something inherently good about being able to find relevant subject matter and comment on it “at source” as it were. Whereas the sites that are easy to knock have made us all aware of social networking, I think the next waves of SN sites that give it a real purpose will make the difference. We are developing WeCanDo.BIZ, a site where businesses can go, upload their details, invite their customers to endorse them and then that network effectively waves the flag for their services – social networking underpins it, but the value is getting your business promoted by happy customers, and those customers all being able to share their most recommended businesses.

    Remember social media is JUST media, the real value comes in the services available through the media. Keep an eye on what happens next…

    Ian Hendry

  6. Mike Gunderloy Monday, March 10, 2008

    Keith – I think Cringely’s point on CB radio is that it went through a cycle of being used by everyone (or perceived that way) and then retreated to a more natural level, used only where it made sense. I’ve still got my CB radio & still use it too – but I’m fairly sure adoption rates are off from the peak.

    Peter – As a history major myself, I knew about the arguments over the tulip “mania”. But I think at this point it’s the natural comparison even if it is a myth; people know what you’re talking about. Maybe I should have used the South Sea Bubble ;) Thanks for the reference.

  7. Hi.

    As long as social networking is a complement to your daily activities, then it should not be a problem. It is a great way to meet others from other parts of the world, market your business or organization, and obtain freedom to create content that will be helpful to others. It is when this tool becomes the only communication to the outside world that you have. You have to use it in moderation.

  8. I see it as a very useful networking tool. Nothing more nothing less. And where people meet, be it online or in the flesh, things happen. Some people have thousands of business card from connections, but don’t ever use them. That on the other hand does noet make the business card concept a bad idea. The same goes for social networking.

  9. Shaine Mata Monday, April 7, 2008

    A friend of mine calls social media hype a self-licking ice cream. Those in it are so enthralled with it that they lose sight of everything else.

    Brendan is right, what good is it to have thousands of contacts when you only truly interact with a few most of the time? Unless your business is social media, it doesn’t make sense to be checking it or using it daily. Maybe once per week is plenty for most of us. Most people have jobs that preclude the use of social media. For example, you wouldn’t want a surgeon, no matter how interesting his discussions, to be incessantly on Twitter, Facebook, and commenting on blogs. Same goes for attorneys, CEOs, pilots, and so on. There is only so much networking necessary for these folks.

    On the other end of the spectrum, if you are working at McDonald’s for your first job, what good will Twittering do if it gets you fired? Try telling your manager that it will bring in more business and see how far it gets you.

    Social media works miracles for those involved in it. For the average Joe, it’s a “what for?” He’s got to worry about putting food on the table first.

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